We hadn't particularly planned to see As You Like It this season, but rush tickets were to much of a bargain to resist so we made an impromptu trip last night (as a non driver I'm inexpressibly grateful to have a friend who is even keener to go to the theatre than I am and happy to do the driving).
Those rush tickets were more of a bargain than we could have hoped, it's a delightful production that we would have been sorry to miss. I've always been a little bit ambivalent about Shakespeare's plays, too often they leave me cold. Something that I've learnt over the last few years is that I find the work of some of his contemporaries or immediate successors far more interesting, even when they're not technically as good. Shakespeare casts a long shadow but he's not the only playwright of his era worth listening to. This 'As You Like It' pulled us both in though and felt genuinely delightful.
Something else that it took me a long time to realise is that the same play can be so very different from production to production so it's only relatively recently that I've become really interested in seeing the same play again and appreciating the shifts in interpretation (I know this should have been obvious, but outside of London you have to take the theatre you can get, and the opportunities are limited).
This production is directed by Kimberley Sykes (her Dido, Queen of Carthage was also excellent a couple of years ago) has a 50/50 gender balance for the cast (more about that Here) and the character of Audrey is played by Charlotte Arrowsmith who is deaf. The casting is colour blind too, but that feels normal now (as it should).
To get that 50/50 balance some of the characters have had their genders flipped, so Jacques (who has a lot of the most famous lines) is played by Sophie Stanton, and the clergyman Oliver Martext becomes Olivia. Coming to the play without any of the preconceptions of familiarity I just know that Sophie Stanton was good in the role, in both cases gender didn't feel relevant.
More difficult is changing Silvius the shepherd to Silvia the shepherdess. Silvius is in love with Phoebe, who has fallen for Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. Rosalind/Ganymede promises she will marry no woman but Phoebe, but if Phoebe will not have Ganymede she must agree to marry Silvius. When Ganymede is shown to be Rosalind, Phoebe concedes the impossibility of any union, but if she then marries Silvia why should she have rejected Rosalind? That union isn't impossible in this scenario at all. Having a woman play Silvius would work perfectly well, changing Silvius to Silvia feels clumsy.
Charlotte Arrowsmith as Audrey is excellent. I'm a fan of Sandy Grierson who plays Touchstone anyway (and love this performance which brings a feral touch of menace to the fool) and they play beautifully off each other. It's the character of William, also in love with Audrey, who signs for her until Touchstone runs him off changing this from potentially tedious low comedy to something that's much more finely nuanced - and still really funny.
David Ajao is an endearing Orlando, but what really made this for us are the performances of Lucy Phelps as Rosalind and Sophie Khan Levy as her cousin, Celia. The reviews I've seen all praise Phelps' Rosalind, deservedly - she's very good, but so is Sophie Khan Levy. The relationship between the two on stage radiates affection, it's the warm heart of the playand it's that pair of performances that made it such a joyful experience.