Sweetness and sourness mingle in the RSC's As You Like It

Lucy Phelps and Amelia Donkor as Rosalind and Silvia. Picture: Topher McGrillis
Lucy Phelps and Amelia Donkor as Rosalind and Silvia. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Peter Ormerod reviews As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

There is something rather curious about the fact this production is sponsored by a company that runs holiday parks. If ever a show examined the strange reality of getting away from it all, this is surely it.

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The RSC bills Shakespeare's As You Like It as a romantic comedy, which perhaps makes it sound rather fluffier than it is. There is romance and there is comedy, but the whole piece is streaked with melancholy and a certain crabbiness. It is not an entirely prepossessing evening of theatre, but to say as much is not necessarily a criticism. It is at least as sour as it is sweet.

Proceedings begin in the rather muted and gloomy setting of the court of the charmless Duke Frederick. The opening scenes are somewhat uncertain in tone; there are early outbursts of violence and anger, with relief coming from the delightfully highly-strung Amiens (Emily Johnstone) and a wrestling bout performed with suitable heft. But the production feels most certain of itself when the action shifts to the Forest of Arden, where playfulness, performance and truth play out a thought-provoking dance.

As You Like It must be a treat for directors, so preoccupied it is with theatre itself, and Kimberley Sykes revels in the opportunities afforded her to explore the relationship between artifice and reality. Our arrival in the forest is heralded by a huge crash and suddenly we are backstage, with actors being called over a public address system and a rack of costumes appearing. Just in case we were unaware of the play's most famous line, a disc apparently made of stage boarding emerges, and the announcer repeats "all the word's a stage". The house lights come on and stay on, presumably to emphasise a dissipation of the boundary between the audience and performers. It is all rather obvious, unsubtle and heavy-handed, but is executed well enough and welcome in its boldness.

This is a forest with no trees but with many Post-It notes; it is left to us to imagine the pastoral scene, the implication being that this is a psychological space as much as a physical one. It is where, through pretence and make-believe, characters find a deeper authenticity. In an age when we are increasingly monitored, always expected to be available for work and scope for creativity and imagination in life seems ever more cramped, there is something of special value in all this. And it is healthy too to be prompted to question the unreality of what we consider reality.

Sophie Khan Levy (Celia) with company. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Sophie Khan Levy (Celia) with company. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The production is lent sparkle by some strong performances. Lucy Phelps brings both sprightliness and grit to her role as Rosalind, while Sandy Grierson's Touchstone exudes a shabby debauchery. Sophie Stanton excelled last year in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich and shines here as Jacques; she does a crisp and fresh job with those seven ages of man and surely deserves a major lead role soon. And Leamington's own Amelia Donkor does herself proud as Silvia, played with great warmth, wit and heart; let us hope this is just the start of a glittering RSC career.

Adding some necessary colour and wonder is Tim Sutton's music, which is frequently beautiful and is sung well but seems rather underused. The nature of the staging and lighting leaves little room for visual elegance, but concealed until the end is a vast and impressive surprise, albeit one that feels somewhat apart from the whole.

Those who may be put off by the play's reputation as being a bit hey-nonny-nonny could well be won over, but there is the slight sense here of overcompensation, perhaps of a bit of magic and joy being sapped in the service of modishness. Nevertheless, it represents a solid beginning to the RSC's year, and is a helpful reminder that we can all sometimes do with a holiday from ourselves.

* As You Like It runs until August 31 before going on tour around the UK. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/as-you-like-it or call 01789 331111 to book.

Sandy Grierson as Touchstone. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Sandy Grierson as Touchstone. Picture: Topher McGrillis