Olivier, National Theatre, London (****)
One normally imagines As You Like It as a rustic rom-com. Polly Findlay hasn’t exactly ignored its usual romantic setting so much as, taking her cue from the characters in the play – and one or two other hints such as comedy routines, a bit of a music hall, a bit of high tech there – has given it a transformative make-over.
Findlay’s conceit initially is a hard one to take – a highly modernised, regimented latter-day urban office, buzzers and bells going off every minute. Improbably, in the midst of this working scenario comes Orlando’s wrestling bout with Charles, a razzamataz show straight out ITV Sunday afternoon professional wrestling bout complete with parading contestants in day-glo cloaks.
It’s when Rosalind and her loyal cousin, Celia, are banished to the forest of Arden that Findlay’s ploy really begins to take off. And literally. Off go the desks with a great clunking of steel as if demolition at hand to become trees housing a human chorus on swings who intermittently provide bird and other sounds. A long sit!
This Forest of Arden is a dark and grungey space yet weaves its own special spell. There are several inspired moments – a flock of humanoid sheep grazing, a comic turn in itself. Paul Chahidi’s `Seven Ages of Man’ speech as a melancholy summary of our mortal passage. And not for nothing is the music credited to Orlando Gough. His vocal hand in this production is everywhere.
Best of all, Findlay has wrought a conversational, naturalistic and very clear diction from a cast who catch her sense of the contemporary as if the words had just been new minted, notably in Mark Benton’s outrageous, down-at-heel Touchstone and Patsy Ferran’s sharp-eyed Celia.
The one under-played note, strangely, is that between Rosalie Craig’s Rosalind and Joe Bannister. Craig, outstanding in The Light Princess makes a delightful Ganymede, Bannister a slightly gauche, chap-next-door Orlando. But it’s hard to sense much romantic charge between them.
Still there is enough in Findlay’s very theatrical production and Shakespeare’s exploration of the giddiness, transforming power of love to once again send magic spilling over into the stalls in a wave of bonhomie and hope.
Orlando: Joe Bannister
Adam: Patrick Godfrey
Oliver: Philip Arditti
Dennis: Jonathan Dryden Taylor
Charles: Leon Annor
Celia: Patsy Ferran
Rosalind: Rosalie Craig
Touchstone: Mark Benton
Le Beau: Jay Saighal
Duke Frederick: Leo Wringer
Duke Senior: John Ramm
Amiens: Fra Fee
Corin: Allan Williams
Silvius: Ken Nwosu
Jacques: Paul Chahidi
Forest Lords: Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Ekow Quartey
Audrey: Siobhán McSweeney
Phebe: Gemma Lawrence
William: Ekow Quartey
Jaques de Bois: Nathan Ives-Moiba
Court Lord: Jonathan Coote
Ensemble/Singers: Hazel Gardner, Ellie Kirk
As You Like It runs at the National to Mar 5, 2016
Reviews first published in REviewsgate, Nov 2015