Kimberly Sykes’ interpretation of As You Like It – which was broadcast to cinemas nationwide last night – is first and foremost a crowd-pleaser. So much so that spectators get on stage, a half-eaten pancake flies into the auditorium, and the crowd frequently clap and cheer. It almost reaches pantomime-level ridiculousness, but never loses its sophistication. Sophie Khan Levy, who plays Celia, said in an interview that this kind of audience inclusion would’ve been rife in Shakespearean theatre. Which, I suppose, is true. It’s like we’re back in the late sixteenth century, minus the bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and replacing the Spanish Armada with other European fears.
Speaking of Levy, she plays a masterful and hilarious Celia – the mischievous and rebellious sidekick and cousin of protagonist Rosalind. Whether hiding under her dress, disguised as a rock like Frodo and Sam, or snatching a programme from a spectator and flicking through the pages (very meta) – she’s physical, cheeky and playful throughout. Lucy Phelps’ Rosalind is a joy to watch. Her comic timing is perfect, as she self-deprecatingly highlights her social blunders and verbal faux pas like a regal Bridget Jones. A highlight of the show was her dialogue with Orlando, when – in disguise as a bloke called Ganymede – she tries to gain his affection. It’s so natural it seems improvised. She makes Rosalind warm, endearing and loveable.
David Ajao also shows off his comic prowess as heartthrob Orlando, who takes to the stage early – just as the audience are taking their seats – to dejectedly mope on a garden swing like a spoiled teenager. Later on, when he changes into his woodland garb to fit in with the outlaws, he goes off the Bard’s script to say, with a grin, “I look good, don’t I?” In the most pantomimic scene of the piece, he brings four audience members onto the stage to spell out ROSALIND in post-it notes. This production really highlights the ridiculousness of the characters and situations, and Orlando’s writing cheesy love poems for Rosalind on the trees is one such situation. The four spectators look bemused yet entertained, not unlike children coming face to face with Widow Twankey. I’m not sure if it was planned, or if Ajao sprung it on them, but it was funny, and a welcome break from the drama before the interval.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium at Stratford was actually expanded for this production. Us distant-viewers watching the screening in a cinema are treated to a featurette in the interval, in which set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis speaks about his decisions. There are more seats, and the stage is smaller, which oddly makes the experience more intimate. We can see from the camera shots that the crowd is more involved; almost every frame features a grinning audience member in the corner of the screen. The house-lights are left on during every scene in the forest, which contrasts nicely with the dark and oppressive court of Duke Frederick. Often the actors climb around the staging, on which the only decoration is fairy-lights – the forest of Arden looks a bit like a hipster’s back garden.
Not that this is a criticism; the whole thing isn’t supposed to be a representation of reality, but an abstract bit of fun. Lots of the performers double-up, which is to be expected, but the transition from court to forest brings this fact to our attention. Actors pull off wigs and clothing to become other characters; the most impressive character transition comes from Antony Byrne, who plays both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. As the court opens up into woodland, his face turns from the insecure and stern manner of the former character, to the jovial, almost Falstaffian style of the latter. This breaking of character, and thus the reality of the play, is like a knowing nod to the audience – an in-joke to those who know the play. Sykes knows how to have fun, and she certainly does with this one.