REVIEW: The RSC’s As You Like It at The Barbican

Billie Manning

As You Like It is quintessential Shakespeare: 50% bawdy jokes and 50% existential conjecture.

Boy (Orlando, played by David Ajao) meets girl (Rosalind, played by Lucy Phelps), but girl is soon after banished from her usurping uncle’s duchy, escaping into the night with her best mate and cousin Celia (Sophia Khan Levy). Through a stroke of luck – good or bad – Orlando is also banished, and the two meet again, this time with Rosalind disguised as a boy named Ganymede. Hilarity – hopefully – ensues.
And this production is certainly successful in the hilarity department. The Barbican is, of course, less well-suited to forest-based romping than the RSC’s home theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon or The Globe, being a Brutalist’s wet dream, but the show is filled with clever insertions of physical comedy and play-ups which translate the language of the text into real laughs.
The cast is hard to fault, from the simmering rage of Antony Byrne’s Duke Frederick to the fantastic chemistry between Phelps and the charismatic Khan Levy. Emily Johnstone stands out in her inspired turn as a party-planning Effie Trinket-reminiscent Amiens, raising chuckles as her heels wobble in the grass. (Her breathtaking singing as Le Beau also cannot go without a mention.) 

A happy surprise is Sandy Grierson as Touchstone the Fool, who is costumed to look like he’s just been dragged through Camden Market circa 2008 backwards. He seems an actor pretty much made for physical comedy, with long, pointy limbs and a gangling gait which makes him fun from the first, when he comes on stage licking mustard off his jacket.
There are panto-esque bits and bobs throughout, from a pancake lobbed into the crowd to some silly audience participation – it’s not the most sophisticated end of the comedy spectrum, but as Grierson brilliantly ad-libbed on the very day the general election was called, we’re going to be busy with other things in December, so we might as well get our pantomime fix now.
The play could have delved deeper into several elements. The production briefly introduces a meta idea of the forest being, in fact, backstage at a theatre, which never seems to get fully explored and there could be more to be done with what the play says about the performance of gender. Despite this, the production is a strong, vivacious and fresh version of one of Shakespeare’s most performed works. There is no doubt it will entertain any who decide to join its playful world for an evening.
As You Like It is at the Barbican from 26 October 2019 - 18 January 2020

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