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Theatre review: As You Like It (RSC/Roundhouse) 
13th-Jan-2011 11:27 pm
Shakespeare-wise, 2011 looks like being all about competing productions of the same plays. Later this month the Donmar's Lear will briefly coincide with the RSC's, and in the summer the Globe's Much Ado will be trying to compete with a starry West End version (there's also multiple Hamlets but then when aren't there multiple Hamlets?) To start with though it's As You Like It, six months after the Old Vic's version and a few months before the Globe launches a touring production. In fact it's very much because of how disappointed I was in Sam Mendes' Bridge Project version that I wanted to see the RSC's current take on the play. My gripe at the time was that, having found the dark side to this fairytale-like comedy, Mendes proceeded to focus entirely on it at the expense of its usually joyous nature; so it was a bit worrying to see the first article in the programme deal with the darker elements beneath the funny stuff. Fortunately Michael Boyd's production finds a balance in acknowledging these themes in the play, without allowing them to overwhelm it. Particularly it's Shakespeare's near-the-knuckle (in the sense that playwrights who did it less subtly could find themselves suddenly lighter by the weight of one head) criticisms of the politics and capriciousness of Elizabeth I's court that get picked up, Tom Piper's costumes for the scenes in Frederick's court all in monochrome Elizabethan dress, turning into colourful, non-time-specific clothes once the action has fully moved to Arden. Piper also provides a set designed to degrade (one of my pet favourites) as the initial off-white wooden framework first gets smeared with blood (in an entertainingly OTT wrestling scene) then littered with dead twigs and the back wall slowly comes apart to reveal the forest. The production's at its most unrestrained when, over the interval, Orlando's love notes don't just get pinned to the trees but transform the auditorium both inside and out.

Having seen a lot of tragedies from them in the summer, I was starting to find the endless permutations of The EnsembleTM were making all their characters blur together so it's nice now in a comedy to see some of the same faces in a very different light: Such as Jonjo O'Neill whom I've now seen in a few pretty intense roles, getting a chance at a romantic lead as Orlando; and most obviously Richard Katz, a psychotic Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, here an almost childlike, endearingly funny Touchstone in a straitjacket and clown shoes. Forbes Masson's sort-of-goth Jaques is effective and looks uncannily like Tim Minchin (since Minchin's been working with the RSC on Matilda I'm guessing the likeness is deliberate.) Katy Stephens is a capable Rosalind if not a spectacular one - at times Mariah Gale's brattish Celia threatens to overshadow her - but she manages the intrigues in the second half well.

Even though Charles Aitken's foppish Oliver de Boys manages to get laughs even in the rather dark opening scene, the production takes a while to warm up - I felt very detached from the action for half an hour at least. It does liven up though, even in the first half, although it's the aforementioned flooding of the building with poetry over the interval that really sucked me in. Overall not the best production I've seen but hitting most of the right notes (and a few extra ones, literally - the play is Shakespeare's most musical but a couple of extra songs turn up here, with bits normally spoken, like Orlando's poetry and Rosalind's epilogue, being put to song.) Although exactly what Boyd is trying to do with Sir Oliver Martext (James Traherne) and his burning cross rather eluded me I'm afraid.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 5th of February at the Roundhouse.
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