By Danielle Farrow
There is a lovely sense of welcome as you enter the space for As You Like It, with Touchstone greeting you personally and performing a magic trick for different sections of the audience while a saxophonist plays. This links to the conversion made that has turned the Forest of Arden into a speakeasy in this 1920s-set production, contrasting the formal court of a usurping duke (father to Celia) with the more louche world of the exiled duke’s court in the night club, rather than with nature as in Shakespeare’s play. It works well enough for the most part, and translates Phoebe the shepherdess into a tipsy barmaid (amusing enough) and Hymen, god of marriage, into some kind of camp entertainer (not his finest hour).
The cousins Celia and Rosalind – daughter of the speakeasy duke (though both dukes are played by the same actor, to the confusion of at least one member of the audience) leave the formal court for that of the club (Rosalind being suddenly banished) and another newcomer to the speakeasy is Orlando, in love with and beloved of Rosalind. For safety, though, Rosalind has disguised herself as a man and proceeds to test Orlando’s love by pretending to be his lady. All works out in the end – this is a comedy – with a number of marriages to tie up proceedings.
Both Rosalind and Celia are played by actresses with an understanding of their words and characters and with some charm, occasionally poignant emotion and decent energy. Touchstone, while doing a lot of ‘this is funny, and this is why’ acting, manages to make something of this type of illustration, using physical comedy, clear speech and his own twinkling charm. Phoebe, too, falling in love with the disguised Rosalind, makes good use of physical comedy, though her popular speech, switching between adoring and despising, lacked detail. The speakeasy’s resident philosopher, Jacques, delivered his lines with a contemplative air that dragged occasionally when empty, but worked well when connected emotionally and gained particular focus for his famous ‘seven ages of man’ speech.
There are somewhat weak patches, where drama is forced rather than believable, acting is flat rather than engaged and cuts hinder storytelling and make a mockery of the passing of time. Lack of disguise for Celia makes lack of recognition of the dukes’ daughters even less believable than usual, but this is a play that needs a fair amount of suspension of disbelief anyway.
Overall, this As You Like It has fine colour and energy, with some strong central performances and entertaining scenes, particularly in the interaction of the main actresses and illustration of Touchstone‘s courtly argument, and it is a fair showing from a relatively young company.