AS YOU LIKE IT

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _5th AUG.

July 7, 2023

images © Ellie Kurttz @ RSC.

Outside of its ubiquitous ‘All the world’s a stage’, it’s fair to say that the pastoral whimsy of Shakespeare’s As You Like It doesn’t command the same cultural immediacy as many of the Bard’s heavier hitters. That is, to say, it lacks something of the brand recognition, identity (some would add, saturation) of a Macbeth, Othello or other such Shakespeare de rigueur.

For certain, it shares aesthetic and conceptual (if not exactly thematic) DNA with, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and fringes of The Tempest, whilst its melting pot of gender reversals, political treachery and self discovery are littered throughout much of the First Folio.

Yet there’s an argument to be made that staging a fresh production of As You Like It doesn’t necessarily demand the same stamp of individuality or high-concept thinking as some of its siblings. It’s comparatively lesser-known, so let the forest shenanigans and romantic tugs of war play out wholesale?

It’s what makes Omar Elerian’s 2023 staging of Like It such a joyful masterstroke. Pitched as a fictitious restaging of the production by a group of players some fifty years after they first performed it, Elerian has assembled a company that comprises mainly of septuagenarians and above.

“Elerian’s meta playground… builds layers into its post-modern nudge-winkery, yet is confident and sharply astute enough to never over-reach.”

Elerian’s meta playground, pitched in a rehearsal room as it is, builds layers into its post-modern nudge-winkery, yet is confident and sharply astute enough to never over-reach. It would be so easy for this concept to be positively bedecked with faked corpsing, endless audience interaction and other routine fourth-wall breaking.

Instead, Elerian and his wonderfully engaging company pick their moments to shatter the illusion carefully. Be it James Hayes’ metered frustration at his Touchstone’s increasingly technicolor and makeshift outfits (“James Hayes… classical actor”), Maureen Beattie alarmedly dodging a fellow player’s over-exuberant swings of a pitchfork, or knowingly stilted moments of fudged fight choreography, this As You Like It’s metadrama hijinks are fun and characterful, yet never overbearing.

Not that it shies away from mining the setup for laughs, though – there are giggles early on, for instance, where the play’s focus on youth and vigour become neatly ironic, and there’s something just infectiously funny about the giddiness and vim with which its characters prance about and engage in puerile mishaps when delivered by more venerable players – but it knows its bounds.

The core essence of the Like It text is winningly performed and spiritually intact, if streamlined. Arden itself notably plays second fiddle, here – be it out of necessity or rather the focus on its extra-narrative players – but it’s all leant a real air of gravitas in the hands of such seasoned and stellar performers. Their experience and affinity with Shakespeare is palpable and intoxicating throughout, and despite the initial absurdity, the romantic tussles are played, and register, with complete authenticity.

Geraldine James is a soulful, steadying Rosalind, whilst no amount of quirky makeshift gowns and cheap tiaras can mask the comedic gold that is Maureen Beattie’s wonderful Celia.”

Geraldine James is a soulful, steadying Rosalind who masterfully bounces between flighty and formidable, whilst no amount of quirky makeshift gowns and cheap tiaras can mask the comedic gold that is Maureen Beattie’s wonderful Celia. Hayes is a terrific, suitably animated Touchstone, whilst Christopher Saul in the performance reviewed gave a commanding, dignified Jaques. David Fielder and Celia Bannerman, meanwhile, light up the lengthier second half as a deliciously fun, loveable pairing – lovelorn Silvius and an equally doe-eyed (albeit unrequited) Phoebe.

Ana Inés and Jabaras-Pita’s staging mostly rations the fantastical (but again, we’re supposed to be in a rehearsal room), leaving the occasional moment of descending light fixtures-cum-swings and sporadic musical numbers (including an inspired Act I closer) to deliver the odd injection of colour and vigour that some may expect from the title.

Not that it needs it, or is any way lacking. Again, the concept is king here, and this As You Like It feels to be as much an affectionate love letter to the performing arts, the rehearsal room and the collaborative nature of theatre as it offers up the base play’s rumination and explorations of love, loyalty, memory and more.

And Elerian signs off a tale that already bandies with gender roles and power plays with one corker of a denouement and mission statement.

As You Like It didn’t need this conceptual or idiosyncratic a treatment. And yet in doing so, this age-blind, metafictive repurpose channels a magic and spark all of its own. An inspired approach, beguiling company and impressive confidence (not to mention restraint) in layering its postmodern flourishes, results in one of the most refreshingly original, irrepressibly feel-good and unexpectedly poignant productions of the year so far.

Strange, eventful history, indeed…

Elerian, James and company weave a refreshing, original and effortlessly enjoyable metafiction with an age-blind twist. Whimsical, celebratory and poignant in equal measure, this is literal and figurative theatre at its giddy best.

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