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As You Like It, Barbican review – uneven comedy lacks bite | reviews, news & interviews

As You Like It, Barbican review – uneven comedy lacks bite

As You Like It, Barbican review – uneven comedy lacks bite

RSC transfer works best when it engages with the complex emotions of the play

Suffer no fools: Sandy Grierson's Touchstone brings an anarchic edge to proceedingsTopher McGrillis

Even the most ardent Bardophile has to admit that most of the time the Fool doesn’t shine in a Shakespeare production. Lamentable wordplay combined with philosophy limper than a dead capon means that with a few honourable exceptions, his interludes feel nasty, a tad brutish, and just not short enough.

Yet in this RSC transfer to the Barbican, Sandy Grierson’s coruscatingly witty Touchstone, complete with bald patch, straggly hair, sequin vest, and tight tartan trousers, steals almost every scene in which he appears. In an evening filled with gentle comedy, there is a raw anger to his humour that brings a genuinely anarchic edge to the cross-dressing romps in the Forest of Arden. 

Kimberly Sykes’s production plays up the comedy from the start. In contrast to David Ajao’s warm, physically demonstrative Orlando, his brother Oliver (Leo Wan) – who is persecuting him – is a twitching weed who resorts quickly to self-pitying tears when Orlando challenges him. Lucy Phelps’s Rosalind and her cousin, Sophie Khan Levy’s Celia, are champagne-glugging party-girls, who swing with ease between Sapphic devotion to each-other and eye-goggling fascination with any attractive man, or indeed woman, who walks by. 

It’s an unusual Shakespeare production these days that doesn’t revel in the gender fluidity of his texts, ranging from Nicholas Hytner’s superb gay-disco A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer to the Globe wowing audiences with its all-female Richard II. Here, among other innovations, the melancholic Jacques is played with suitably wry disdain by Sophie Stanton, while the comically unfortunate lovers, Silvius and Phoebe become Silvia and Phoebe. 

Yet even this playful subversion feels conventional in a production which, while often enjoyable, rarely provokes. Though it’s far from necessary for Shakespeare’s rich, multi-dimensioned vision to be realised as thinly disguised agitprop, even the most apparently frivolous of his comedies need bite. There is no shortage of laughs – on Stephen Brimson Lewis’s elegant set on which the Forest of Arden becomes the chaos backstage at a theatre, complete with costume rails and clever miked announcements “All the world’s a stage” – every player has a comic turn. Emily Johnstone’s beautiful singing voice elevates the folk-style musical interludes, and there is a beguiling sense of festival, yet overall the comedy and the music are uneven, which is possibly why in these light-hearted modes the production rarely feels compelling.

Where it does work is when it really engages with the more complex emotions of the work. One interesting and effective innovation is when we see Charles the wrestler torturing Oliver for information of Orlando’s whereabouts as Antony Byrne’s chillingly sadistic Duke Frederick declaims his paranoid vision. In an era that doesn’t lack murderous despots, Byrne – who also plays the exiled Duke Senior – comes across particularly strongly as a tunnel-visioned tyrant with an abusive streak towards his daughter and niece. In a different vein Lucy Phelps’s never less than engaging Rosalind really holds the stage when she is expressing the depth and anguish of her new-found love. As her eyes glisten and her voice catches you truly get the sense of what’s at stake for her in new-found identity. In terms of comedy, Khan Levy’s Celia is consistently and stylishly boisterous, not least when she suddenly transforms her petticoat into a hideout as Orlando emerges in the forest to talk to Rosalind. Beyond this she reveals herself as one of the strongest singing voices in the production. (Pictured above, Sophie Khan Levy, left, and Lucy Phelps.)

Yet in terms of transitioning between the comic and the tragic, it is without doubt Grierson’s evening. There’s the extraordinary moment of physical comedy when he swings down from a bridge, complete with wheely suitcase dangling from his foot, looking like some long-legged wading bird struggling with an over-large catch from the river. Or the outrageous moment when he casually inserts his finger into the anus of a shepherd he meets, extracting it with a pop as they talk. Or his wooing of Charlotte Arrowsmith's deaf Audrey, complete with the playfully innovative exchanges with her interpreter. Or the moment when – as the reticent audience is invited to join in with Orlando’s hopeless poetry for Rosalind – he cries with raw humour “There’s going to be an election at Christmas”, the implication being that we might as well get our fun in now.

Overall though this is something of a curate’s egg of a production – fun enough as an evening out, but little more than that. Which isn’t enough: one of the great paradoxes of Shakespeare’s talent is that no matter how often we encounter his texts, when they’re well directed, they feel transformative. Ultimately this just isn’t coherent enough an interpretation to deliver the requisite punch. 

Sandy Grierson’s coruscatingly witty Touchstone, complete with tight tartan trousers, steals almost every scene in which he appears


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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