Review: As You Like It @ The National ***

Well I didn’t really like it all that much.

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Patsy Ferran as Celia, & Rosalie Craig as Rosalind. Image by Johan Persson

Going into the play, the best things I’d heard about it were this: ‘well the set is amazing’, ‘I liked what they did with the set’, ‘the set it really clever’. And that’s the thing: it all just felt far too ‘clever’ an interpretation, obscuring the text at points. To put it another way, when an audience leaves your production only talking about the set and what’s happening on it, kudos to your set designer. Less kudos to the actors. Not to say there’s anything wrong on the acting front, it just feels as if they are saying the lines rather than giving them justice.

As You Like It is being staged in the Olivier theatre, a space where you always know (or hope) that something impressive will be made of the set. And the production doesn’t disappoint in this respect. The forest scenes are a spectacle to behold: a rather sterile office environment is literally raised up from its roots, as desks and chairs hang from the ceiling, becoming trees. Cast members then sit on stage, a part of the set itself, providing background noises such as birds and a rather annoying bee! They even become sheep at one point, which yields some of the biggest laughs of the night.

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Paul Chahidi as Jacques. Photo by Johan Persson.

Which is where we run into the first issue. When an added scene gets more laughs than the text itself, it suggests two things: 1) you’re not doing the text justice, and 2) you don’t have faith in the text itself. Sure, while seeing cast members act as sheep for a good 10 minutes was funny. But it wasn’t absolutely necessary. If you got rid of that element, you would cut half the laughs the production got right there. I’m all for adding or adapting scenes to yield new readings. But combined with the rather lackadaisical approach to the language it came across as if there was no faith in the original text, adorning it with flashy sets, ‘comedic’ additions and dances.

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Leo Wringer as Duke Frederick (centre), plus the company of As You Like It. Image by Johan Persson.

As I said, it just all felt too clever at points. The transition from the first set to the second was visually impressive, but the first office set felt a bit odd. As if they came up with the idea of building a forest out of desks first, then how to transition from an office to this came as as an after thought. While I like the idea of the office contrasting with the forest, it was rather over complicated, with the office a less than smooth metaphor for a court and raising a number of questions. Why were there tiny trees on the desk? Have they destroyed nature so much that it’s a wasteland only accessible by the emergency exit? If so, where do they all sleep? In the office block? And why does wrestling happen here and not in the staff room? Is there a staff room? What’s with the colour coding of uniforms? Why do they look like Star Trek? Is it set in the future? Then why are the costumes in the second half so modern day? And how are these people surviving in the forest if this office utilitarian lifestyle is in effect? Don’t get me wrong, I liked the forest set and how this production emphasised its hostility, an element less touched on by other productions. The first set just seemed stylistically confused in comparison.

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Rosalie Craig as Rosalind, and Joe Bannister as Orlando. Photo by Johan Persson

The acting is solid on the whole, making use of an impressive ensemble cast which create a vibrant soundscape. Paul Chahidi’s Jacques is the stand out performance in this for me. His take on ‘All the world’s a stage’ was so innovative: half cynical, half depressingly sincere. His scenes were a delight to watch as Chahidi brought a side to the character downplayed in other productions. Rosalie Craig is a perfectly capable Rosalind, though her scenes as Ganymede were less than convincing. Patsy Ferran offered glimmers of an interesting interpretation of Celia, with her character fading into the background as she does in the text itself during conversations between Orlando and Ganymede. She literally becomes part of the set, joining in with the nature calls. Joe Bannister captured the sweetness of Orlando bringing less the sad lover, more the joyous, giddy one. Notable mentions must go to the supporting cast who were on stage for most of the second half, in particular to Fra Fee for his beautiful singing of the songs, adapted by Orlando Gough and Marc Tritschler.

Verdict: a production which favours pomp and circumstance over language. But if you end on confetti, you’re alright(ish) in my book.

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