AS YOU LIKE IT at the Everyman Cheltenham

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It is about many things. It is about the initial triumph of evil over good, it is about reconciliation but above all it is about the triumph of love. It is about the search for love, the strength and value of love and definition of love, mainly from a woman’s perspective. Finally, it is about fulfilment and redemption.

The excellent Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company is at the Everyman this week after a longish run of the play in its home theatre in Bristol.

I know the play quite well although I haven’t seen it for quite a while. Not wishing to appear a name-dropper but needing to make a point, I have to admit to appearing in a production at Lincoln rep many years ago with Steven Berkoff as Orlando and John Savident as the dukes. That production, as you can imagine, was dominated by Berkoff but As You Like It is Rosalind’s play and Dorothea Myer-Bennett left nobody in any doubt that that was the case.

Her exciting, faultless performance was a tour de force, being self-assured, pushy and vulnerable all at the same time. Rosalind is aided and abetted in her quest for love by her cousin Celia after they have left the court of the evil Duke Frederick and taken refuge in the forest with jester Touchstone. Daisy May’s portrayal of Celia was another beautifully judged performance. To her the whole story of Rosalind trying to entrap Orlando was an entertaining merry jape until love buried its unrelenting claws in her too. The two of them were a totally believable, often giggly, girlish pair with Celia egging Rosalind on one moment and rolling her eyes the next.

Visually I think As You Like It at the Everyman was quite different from its original production at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory where it was done in the round. The Cheltenham theatre’s vast empty stage was adorned by a loosely draped back-cloth of multi-coloured, abstract design that could easily have been a rich palace tapestry or a leafy forest glade, the occasional table and chair the only furnishing. The subtle lighting enhanced every scene and the actors provided their own music as they wandered the dappled paths. Although there are lots of songs in Shakespeare, As You Like It in particular, none of the music survives so it is up to each company to write its own tunes which, in this production, were catchily penned by Elizabeth Purnell and nicely sung by Offue Okegbe.

As You Like It by William ShakespeareAs I said, As You Like It is Rosalind’s play but all the other women are fairly assertive and know what they want too. The consequence is, in this production at any rate, that the men, Orlando in particular, seem often to be playing second fiddle, straight-men almost. The only male characters that are not smitten by love are the two dukes, both played by the wonderful Chris Bianchi and the disillusioned laconic Jaques played by the excellent Paul Currier. For me it was those two actors who were the only goal scorers on the male team. I think some of the comedy characters could have been a bit more developed and it was only the cough and the spit of Vincenzo Pellegrino as Sir Oliver Martext that had that element of grotesqueness from which Shakespeare’s clowns normally benefit.

In spite of my little niggles this was an excellent, sophisticated production and one which I highly recommend. If I had half stars I’d give it 4½ but as I don’t, it’ll have to be ★★★★☆ Michael Hasted

 

My colleague Simon Bishop reviewed the play while it was in Bristol. You may want to read his review for another take on it. Click here to do so.

 

Photos by Mark Douet