Polly Findlay has directed a bleak and darkly beautiful production of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies of love. As You Like It takes place in two distinct worlds: the city and the country. It starts with treachery and usurpation of power in the city and ends with the triumph of love and marriage in the Forest of Arden with some gray areas in between.
Patsy Ferran and Rosalie Craig. Photo:Jojann Persson
The city for Findlay and Set Designer Lizzie Clachan is a large office full of desks and other furniture. Orlando (Joe Bannister), the younger son of an aristocrat, is mistreated by older brother Oliver (Philip Arditti), is denied his inheritance and is forced to clean the furniture with a sprayer. The same set serves as the scene in the house of Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer) who seized power from his brother Duke Senior (John Ramm) and exiled him in the forest. Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind was spared because she is a friend of the usurper’s daughter Celia. But Ferdinand changes his mind and throws her out as well. The two girls leave the evil palace for the forest together.
We all go to the Forest of Arden and Findlay has the engineers of the National hoist all the furniture above the playing area. All the pieces are tied together and the change from city to forest is quite dramatic.
The furniture hovering over the actors is black as is the rest of the stage. This forest is bleak, cold, forbidding and unpleasant. We hear the sounds of animals that may be natural to the forest and perhaps threatening. At one point the chorus comes out on all fours wearing woolen sweaters. The flock of sheep has arrived.
The desks and chairs of the city and the dreary forest perhaps tell us that people and life are the same everywhere? It may be but by the end of the play Oliver and Duke Frederick, the bad guys, will be transformed into decent people, order will be reestablished and the sun will shine.
Findlay assembled a first rate cast for her dramatic conception of the play for this production. Rosalie Craig as Rosalind and Patsy Ferran as Celia made a fine team of friends who interacted superbly with each other and the other characters. The delivery of Shakespeare’s language by them and the rest of the cast was outstanding. Clear, resonant, pitch-perfect.
Touchstone the clown (Mark Benton) and the melancholy Jaques (Paul Chahidi) are always interesting characters to watch. Benton with his generous physique was very funny and Chalidi gave us a sympathetic outsider with a fine delivery of the Seven Ages speech.
The country folk were entertaining. Siobhan McSweeney was a lively and randy Audrey, Gemina Lawrence, a spitfire Phoebe and Ken Nwosu made a bouncy Silvius.
Findlay staged the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (a beefy Leon Annor) like something from the World Wrestling Entertainment. Charles wore a gold cape and his supporters were screaming and howling with excessive zeal. It did not quite match the mood of the rest of the production but it was fun.
Findlay has added a chorus which sings some songs (music by Orlando Gough) and it is all very pleasant.
The director delivers a well thought out production with a personal perspective that is interesting, successful and very much worth seeing.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare continues until March 5 2016 at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/