As You Like It at the Novello theatre

Published April 17, 2008

Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cavorting in the forest continues at the Novello theatre with As You Like It, the last of the four comedies presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Dominic Cooke directs this production in which Barnaby Kay and Lia Williams star as the would-be lovers Orlando and Rosalind. Caroline Bishop went to the first night.

As the cast of As You Like It face the audience and sing Under The Greenwood Tree, they are literally under a greenwood tree. Rae Smith’s set is simple and striking – an enormous tree is the only fixture on stage, and it serves as the only backdrop throughout the whole play.

Most of the action is set in the Forest of Arden, where one Duke has been banished by another, his brother, both played by Jonathan Newth. Rosalind (Lia Williams), daughter of the banished, is herself told to leave the reigning Duke’s court, and so she disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, and heads to the forest with her cousin Celia (Amanda Harris) in tow, to find her father. But not before she has locked eyes with the strapping Orlando (Barnaby Kay), son of the much revered Sir Rowland de Boys, who proves his worth by appearing at court, baring his torso and winning a rather comedy wrestling match. Instantly in love, as only a Shakespearian couple can be, Orlando and Rosalind go their separate ways, each swooning after the other.

The central plot of Rosalind and Orlando, with comic support from Celia, provides the most enjoyable part of the play and sets in motion much musing over the nature of love. When Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, directs Orlando on how he should woo her, her idea of love shows that nothing has changed through the centuries and the basics remain the same today – turn up on time boys.

Shakespeare stirs numerous other couples into the big pot of love – shepherd boy Silvius (Jamie Ballard) and his reluctant amour Phebe (Caitlin Mottram), Celia and Orlando’s brother Oliver (John Mackay), who also fall in love with a single look, along with the fool Touchstone (Paul Chahidi) and the wonderfully grotty goatherd Audrey (Meg Fraser), who provides a touchingly comic moment at the end when she dresses in her wedding ‘finest’.

Lighting and sound are by two recent Laurence Olivier Award winners Paule Constable and Paul Arditti, who beautifully conjure the fantastical atmosphere of the forest. Constable’s lighting is for the most part sombre in the first, darker act, while the lighter moments in the second half are filled with sunshine as the lovers all get together for the inevitable happy ending.

As You Like It plays until 25 March at the Novello theatre.

CB