Though As You Like It is often thought to be a bit frothy and lightweight (especially compared to the other plays that Shakespeare wrote towards the end of the 16th century: Henry V, Julius Caesar and that one about the Danish prince), it has proved to be one of his most enduring plays. It’s easy to see why. As You Like It, with its mediations on the meaning of love, abundance of cross dressing, and liberal sprinkling of homo-eroticism, has the potential to be very entertaining and is particularly easy for an audience to get to grips with.
Greg Hersov’s production for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre plays out on a bare stage; the set isn’t just minimal, it’s non-existent. Hersov and sound designer Pete Rice have focussed their attentions on the auditory elements of the staging, lowering speakers down over the stage to create the pastoral sounds of the Forest of Arden.
He’s also gathered together a talented ensemble cast, from which Cush Jumbo stands out as Rosalind; her male alter-ego Ganymede is played as a hip-hop, patios-spouting, low-slung jeans wearing youth, and she’s equally as convincing and compelling in these scenes. It’s a incredibly impressive piece of stage acting, especially in the second half of the play, but the rest of the cast are never eclipsed. In particular, James Clyde as the melancholic Jacques is an absolute riot, channelling both Russell Brand andJjohnny Depp in Capt Jack Sparrow mode into a louche, camp, swaggering performance while Ian Bartholomew is an appealing Touchstone, interacting with the audience and demonstrating an innate sense of comic timing.
As Orlando, Ben Batt has real chemistry with Jumbo and special mention should go to William Postlethwaite (son of the late, legendary Pete) and Zora Bishop as the quarrelling lovers Phebe and Silvius – both of them are making their professional debuts and both display on-stage confidence far beyond their years.
There are some nice touches throughout the production; the wrestling scene between Orlando and Charles is brilliantly choreographed, with the latter in full Giant Haystacks regalia, while the cocktail waitresses dressed in Playboy Bunny costumes evoke the debauchery of Duke Frederick’s court. The modern costume design works well; it’s even possible to spot the odd PJ Harvey T-shirt amongst the ensemble.
At over three hours, there are aspects of the production that admittedly feel slightly uneven, as Hersov wrestles with the age-old dilemma of how to balance the broad comic moments with the play’s more philosophical musings. The first half does seem to drag slightly, and it’s only after the interval that the production really gathers momentum, leading to a joyous final singalong with the full cast. The songs in fact are one of the biggest surprises here: a nice mix of blues and folk, they’re a real showcase for composer James Dey’s talent (who also appears as the Balladeer).
It’s possibly not one for purists – and at times it does feel its length – but, to answer the famous question posed by Rosalind here, you can never have too much of a good thing.