REVIEW: As You Like It, RSC

Sophie Kahn Levy and Lucy Phelps. Photo Topher McGrillis/RSC

Lucy on high with diamonds

Steve Sutherland reviews As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 31st August

Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stevenson, Rebecca Hall… you’d be forgiven for assuming we’re, rather irrelevantly, roll-calling down the red carpet at the recent Oscars. But what all these fine ladies have in common, apart from being varying shades of rich and famous in the acting business, is that, according to our old pal internet, they have all excelled in the role of Rosalind, the principal character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and pretty much the biggest role (or at least, given the most lines) of any female in the Bard’s oeuvre.

Well, the headline news is that we can now add Lucy Phelps to that A-list. Her Rosalind, a merry mercurial delight, is worth the price of admission alone. Bright and sparkling from the very outset, she utterly owns the show, her every gesture genuine, in and of the moment, lithe and responsive, one of the best enjoyed at the RSC — or on any other stage I’ll warrant — in quite some time. The only aspect of her performance beyond belief is how she could have fallen head over heels for David Ajao’s dopey, schoolboyish Orlando but, hey, that’s love for you, which I guess, if anything, is what the play’s all about.

It’s the relationship with her long-suffering best buddy Celia, played with a lovely mixture of exasperation and exuberance by Sophie Khan Levy, which actually carries us with little complaint through a piece of work that even the biggest AYLI fan would surely admit isn’t one of Shakespeare’s finest. Lazily conceived with oodles of lukewarm humour, loose ends tied up slapdash with a brutal indifference to audience intelligence, and characters that don’t really appear to do anything or, for that matter, to actually know what they’re there for, it’s a gentle plod laced, as always, with characteristic flourishes of genius.

Director Kimberley Sykes, last seen at the RSC with her lauded Dido, has done a pretty good job with this middling business, teasing out the eternal preoccupations and self-delusions of the lovelorn so the drama, thin as it is, does lightly resonate, engaging and timeless. Of course, back when it was first performed, around 1599 or so, there were no women actors and all the female parts were played by boys. So it must have been quite a hoot to have Rosalind, played by a boy, disguise him/herself as Ganymede, a bloke, for most of the play. However, there are some fresh gender switches in this production which, even allowing for an admirably modern embrace of gender fluidity, actually add nothing but confusion to an already muddled plot. A splendidly brash Laura Elsworthy who plays the wanton Phoebe, falls in lust with Ganymede despite his indifference, so when she is pursued in love by Amelia Donkor’s shepherdess Silvia, a lass rather than the Bard’s original lad, it’s just plain baffling, especially as she’s kind of bullied into a lesbian relationship at the end somewhat against her previous nature. The casting of a strangely subdued Sophie Stanton as Jacques also doesn’t bring anything fresh to the party.

One innovation that does pay comic dividends is the casting of Charlotte Arrowsmith as Audrey, for whom Sandy Grierson’s overbearing clown/fool Touchstone has the hots. Grierson renders him gruff, loud and Glaswegian, like Jerry Sadowitz if he were a harlequin punk with a Rab C Nesbitt comb-over, while Ms Arrowsmith is deaf so their bickering interaction is necessarily played out in sign language via a bemused interpreter. Cue much comic frustration.

The cast play it all for every laugh they can find, the audience roped in to participate whenever opportunity knocks. One poor chap found himself centre stage in a suit of Post-it Notes, like a tree stump splattered with bird poo — quite a giggle if you like that sort of thing. The matrimonial finale invokes something I’ve just discovered is called a deus ex machina which in this case means the lowering and rather clumsy assembly of a giant wooden puppet — a little more weird than wonderful I’m afraid.

Anyway apparently, the most famously remembered lines in As You Like It are Jacques from his/her “All the world’s a stage…” speech, but, true to his instinctive urge to subvert dramatic conventions in pursuit of living, breathing reality, I suspect Shakespeare reveals more of his own personal truth when Rosalind as Ganymede cunningly dismantles this whole darn shebang in a sarcastic aside which begins: “The poor world is almost sixty thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person… in a love cause,” goes on to expose the tales of the legendarily fated lovers Troilus, Leander etc as fanciful myths, and concludes, “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

In other words, let’s not take all this too seriously, shall we? The same ensemble will soon move on to tackle Measure For Measure and The Taming Of The Shrew, somewhat meatier fare on which to test their talents.