As You Like It,
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon,
June 17-August 5
Cast: Celia Bannerman, Maureen Beattie, Michael Bertenshaw, Hannah Bristow, David Fielder, James Hayes, Geraldine James, Tyreke Leslie, Mogali Masuku, Christopher Saul, David Sibley, Malcolm Sinclair, Robin Soans, Cleo Sylvestre, Ewart James Walters, Rose Wardlaw
Director: Omar Elerian
Running time: three hours, including interval
The line “ripeness is all” from Shakespeare’s tragedy of old age Lear could easily be the motto of the RSC’s latest joyful version of one of his most youthful comedies of love.
Director Omar Elerian transports us from the Forest of Arden to a dry rehearsal room, all functional chairs and disposable coffee cups, where a mostly septuagenarian cast remembers a production of As You Like it of 1978, when the actors were young. It also happens to be the year of the director’s birth. The token four young actors, we’re told, will fill in any gaps.
It’s an ingenious conceit, like so much in Shakespeare, and it serves to bring clarity to the play’s potentially confusing juxtapositions and incongruities.
The two characters that do most to steer the action are Geraldine James, still luminous at very nearly 73, as Rosalind, and James Hayes, as an hilarious Touchstone. He is also extremely deft. His “classical actor” status, of which he tongue-in-cheek frequently reminds us, allows him to deliver his tongue-twisting final speech as if it were effortless.
Given that the role of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s time entailed a boy pretending to be a young woman, who disguises herself as the youth Ganymede who then asks her lover to woo her as if she were Rosalind, it’s hardly a stretch to believe a veteran actor is giddy with young love.
Courtship is in any case worthy of satire as the art of the malign court from which Rosalind’s lover Orlando (Malcolm Sinclair) is exiled, and it finds its parody in the rural lovers David Fielder (Silvius) and Celia Bannerman (Phoebe).
Hayes’ creaking knees as he bends to propose to his Audrey (Cleo Sylvestre) send up love’s absurdity, always present in romantic comedies that require feats of impossible bravery contrived from fantastical situations, and reams of bad poetry, scribbled on the magical trees of Arden that eventually make their appearance.
But love also represents the human instinct to perpetuate and live life to the full, sharpened in a production that draws out the awareness of death that must have been at least as acute for the young Shakespeare, living in a time of plague and short life-spans, as it is for the septuagenarians of our time.
The one character who can resist love’s charms is Jaques, played on this occasion by stand-in Christopher Saul, because of the indisposition of Oliver Cotton.
Suitably morose, Saul recites his Seven Ages of Man speech, with a dead deer at his feet should we need any reminder of how close we are to being “sans everything” and how grateful we are to celebrate whatever we have left.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.