Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Review: As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

At a superficial level, Maria Aberg’s decision to frame the forest of Arden as a festival spot, complete with a final, inevitable downpour, is a savvy one. In Shakespeare’s forests – like his islands and rural retreats – the usual rules and routines are suspended and Arden, with its hippyish exiles and knockabout naturefreaks, is the most freewheeling of all.

So here, in amongst the steel support trees, is a cartload of musicians with doublebasses, banjos and accordions, strewn around their own miniature mainstage. All wooing is done in song and those love poems nailed around the forest have become full-blown ballads. There’s bunting, beer and, of course, that final burst of rain-soaked rapture in the mud.

But Aberg doesn’t stop there. She uses the setting to turn As You Like It into a critique of today’s youth and, for all that the folksy vibe adroitly unlocks the play’s heart-swelling rapture, it’s the social commentary within that makes this a blinder.

First, though, the heart; the way this As You Like It makes you beam and bubble up inside. There’s Laura Marling’s music, of course; twinkling nu folk renditions of ancient originals like Under the Greenwood Tree, replete with wispy vocal harmonies and melting summery warmth. Then, surpassing it for total, unfettered amiability, there’s Pippa Nixon’s luminous Rosalind. My god, she’s good; a Rosalind you fall for from the stalls.

Convincingly disguised as Ganymede, with a sock stuffed down her cords and an androgynous quiff, she seems blessed with that inexplicable confidence that some people just possess. “Sure he’s proud,” as Phoebe says – “and yet his pride becomes him.” To listen to Nixon say “I cannot be out of sight of Orlando” is bliss and she captures the headrush, the giddy tickle of adrenaline, that comes from an explosive crush. She skirts the obvious gags – those wry double entendres – and instead just speaks the text plainly and sincerely.

That pure sincerity stands in marked contrast to Alex Waldmann’s manchild of an Orlando, who turns up for his first courtship tutorial intent on taking the piss: Rosalind scrawled on his skin, waistcoat on backwards and a false beard on his chin. Where Nixon strays into irony, delivering grapes after Orlando’s tussle with a lion, it’s gorgeously tender: a shared jibe, fully understood and taken in the spirit intended.

Waldmann’s Orlando carries most of the social critique because he is, well, a bit of a cock, really. He starts, fag in hand, scuffing his heels, as his aged home-help Adam creaks down to scoop sodden leaves into a wheelbarrow; the thought of helping never even crosses his mind. Arrogant, vain and possessed of little discernible talent, this is Orlando as directionless slacker, all splutter and swagger. (If there’s a quibble, one wonders what on earth Nixon’s Rosalind sees in him.)

Next to that, one word pings out over and over: labour. Aberg’s spotted that it’s the older characters – Adam and Corin (“I am a true labourer”) – that do all the work, while the young flit around the forest, dreaming of living of their passions as musicians and artists. The dreaminess just about holds out, but there’s something glumly unrealistic and temporary in that. These youths, lost in music and love, have their heads in the sand. But then, one wonders what other option they have when they come from so strident and uptight a world. (Interesting too that Robin Soans’ Corin should share the same still confidence of Rosalind; a man totally at peace with himself.)

There’s plenty of strong support. Nicolas Tennant works wonders with Shakespeare’s least funny funnyman Touchstone, by making him a ticking, depressive shambles – and it’s a particular pleasure to glimpse the influence of Three Kingdoms in the way he grabs the part and shakes it, sometimes all the way out of the play itself. Joanna Horton makes a cutesy geek-chic boho Celia and Cliff Burnett an soulful aging rocker of a Duke Senior. Chris Jared’s Jaques, inventive though it is to make Monsieur Melancholy the sort of loopy druggy that wonders around a festival site, misses some of the humour by aiming at it too directly. Gorgeous design work, too, from Naomi Dawson and lighting designer James Farncombe. Ultimately, though, this is Nixon and Aberg’s night and we should hope and pray they meet as often as they can.

Photograph: Keith Pattison

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