The RSC’s “As You Like It” at the Roundhouse gets better when the action hits Arden, but while the production gets better, the play rather fizzles out.
The opening of the production could not be in greater contrast to their Romeo and Juliet, in which the gloomy atmospheric delivery of the prologue was followed by highly energetic and slightly terrifying skirmishes choreographed to violent pyromanic perfection. Here the actors wander onto a brightly lit set which looks a little like a bookend. The apron is backed by what looks like a set of rather shabby cupboards. Rather than feeling like the RSC’s London home for the next years, it’s reminiscent of seeing a touring production in a community centre. The wrestling scene, also rather unforgivingly lit, is unconvincing too (despite some blood spatter from the collision of cranium and cupboard). The performances are good but there’s not a lot of atmosphere.
As soon as the action shifts to Arden we get to see what the designers are capable of, however. The lighting dips, the snow starts falling, trapdoors open in the stage and the naff cupboards swing open and to reveal a joists, ladders and straw bales like the inside of a barn. It’s a very effective set and there’s some nimble clambering by cast members as they take advantage of the scope it offers.
It’s years since I’ve seen As You Like It, and it’s not a play I know well, though I remember being very fond of it. Unfortunately, on getting reacquainted, I’d have to accept it’s not in the first division of Shakespeare comedies (in the pub, afterwards, we agree that after discounting the “problem plays” like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, that the first division comprised A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night). The central premise (spoiler ahead, look away now) of girl dressing as boy (paper thin excuse already forgotten) then pretending to be herself while boy she fancies woos her is, in my humble opinion, terrific; unfortunately there’s not a lot more to the play than that. Rosalind is a great character. Her scheming, deception and machinations are wonderful. But although these are resolved, the absurd way in which other plot elements are effectively discarded give the end of the play an anticlimactic feel.
The premise by which she and her cousin Celia get exiled is dramatic and well handled, and despite the flaws of the court scenes, this gives the flight to Arden the urgency and jeopardy it needs. Once in Arden, the play becomes more fun, and the production picks ups. But while the danger is set aside, it’s unfinished business, and the plot feels like it needs a return to the court to see the new Duke overthrown, Oliver repent and the exiled Duke his rightful place. The adventure in the woods almost needs to be bookended, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, Shakespeare seems to have had another “exit pursued by a bear” moment, and written an fight between Orlando and a lion (hello? a lion?) to precipitate a change in Oliver, and deposes the new duke with a line about a religious conversion.
Jonjo O’Neill, who was an suitably mercurial Mercution in Romeo and Juliet is engaging and idealistic as Orlando. Katy Stephens is strong as Rosalind too. Mariah Gale, who was so impressive as Juliet (the best, according to Michael Billington, since Judy Dench) is Celia; she doesn’t have much to do but she makes the most of the part, commanding even when she’s just sitting and watching Orlando and Rosalind. But it’s in the comics that this production finds is strengths: Richard Katz is a superb touchstone, Forbes Masson a musical as well as melancholy Jacques, and the shepherds and shepherdesses entertainingly grotesque.
Finally, the music deserves a mention. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the ditties here are part of the action which adds to the charm considerably. The compositions are rather beautiful, even when rendered for comedy value, and round out a very entertaining show.