REVIEW: As You Like It, RSC Barbican Theatre ✭✭✭

Helena Payne reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It now playing a the Barbican Centre.

RSC As You Like It review Barbican Centre
Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

As You Like It
Royal Shakespeare Company
Barbican Theatre London
3 Stars
Book Tickets

It’s always a joy to be invited to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of your favourite comedies so with high hopes I settled into the cavernous whale’s belly of the Barbican’s great auditorium. Previous experiences of this play have had me collapsing in stitches however the lack of coherent thought from the creative team with regards to their intentions for this production left this As You Like It feeling jumbled and uneven with serious issues in the storytelling.

Royal Shakespeare Company
Lucy Phelps and Amelia Donkor. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The pre-set was discernibly simple; a circular carpet of false grass and a splintered disc as a backdrop whilst Orlando played by David Adjao sat slumped on an oversized swing. The world of the court is dark and solemn, lead by the chilling Antony Byrne as Duke Frederick. The courtiers appear in varying degrees of ill-fitting pin-stripe garments and the lighting is stark in that there is very little, it is all harsh spotlights, everything else is suffocating darkness. Which leads us on to one of the boldest creative decisions of the piece; once in the forest of Arden the house lights in the theatre snap back on which after the gloom of the court is completely overwhelming. The sense the discomfort and unease from the auditorium is palpable. Having read the programme notes after the show this was reasoned because in Shakespeare’s time the audience would have been visible to the actors, and potentially in their more authentic auditorium space in Stratford this was effective but in the huge Barbican, it simply does not work. Having started the play using a different conceit our suspension of disbelief is completely shattered and makes for an uncomfortable few hours at the theatre. Perhaps the decision was inspired by Shaffer’s famous Black Comedy but this is simply neither the play or the place for such an idea.

Sophie Stanton
Sophie Stanton. Photo: Topher McGrillis (C) RSC

Regardless of the mismatched creative decisions, there are lovely performances from a hard-working ensemble. Lucy Phelps makes for a dynamic and heartfelt Rosalind and bouncy Ganymede. Having thrown off her women’s attire she feels much more liberated and her Act 3 scene 2 interchanges with Orlando are dizzying and hilarious. David Ajoa is a charismatic Orlando but their chemistry does not convince entirely. Much more moving is the sorority and warmth of Celia as Sophie Khan Levy and her cousin Rosalind. Leo Wan is a revelation as Orlando’s embittered older brother Oliver and finds both humour and pathos in his beautifully delivered first soliloquy and his reformation at the end of the play. Equally, Emily Johnstone introduces some fantastic physical comedy capturing the eternal and universal struggle of trying to walk in heels on turf. Indeed, there is no shortage of talent on stage including Sandy Grierson who gives an unforgettable turn as Touchstone, both vulgar and profound, he perfectly captures the irreverent madcap wildness of Shakespeare’s fool without losing the darkness or danger.

RSC Barbican
Antony Byrne. Photo: Topher McGrillis (C) RSC

The most significant element of the production that was distractingly incoherent was the costuming which is a very plain and vast set has a huge impact. Unfortunately, it felt like designer Bretta Gerecke had scraped the barrel at the RSC costume store and found the most incongruous and ugly clothes possible. Half the cast looked like they had walked out of a pastoral scene, some looked like they belonged in the Mighty Boosh, others looked like they had swanned out of a Noel Coward or Bugsy Malone. The costuming and design failed to enhance this production because it was completely confusing, and moreover the actors looked ill at ease in their awkward and dreadful garb.

William Shakespeare As You Like It
Sophie Khan Levy with company. Photo: Topher McGrillis (C) RSC

This production suffers from trying to be everything to everyone and essentially becomes nothing to anyone. This As You Like It directed erratically by Kimberly Sykes fails to showcase it’s brilliant cast and instead seems instead a vehicle for a creative team with an abundance of ideas but no effort is made to bring them together. Perhaps this production felt “riotous” as described in their Press materials up in Stratford, sadly in London, it feels chaotic and falls flat.

Until 18 January 2020

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