As You Like It review – ‘Slightly flat, with a twist of theatrical magic’

Shared Experience’s reinterpretation of As You Like It is surprising and worth a watch, writes Harry Hatwell

Shared Experience and Theatre by the Lake’s joint production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies left me feeling slightly flat. But it did have some great moments of true theatrical magic and acting skill.

Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It follows the loves and dramas of a rowdy group of banished and exiled people fleeing a political tyrant.

Finding each other again in Arden, Rosalind (Jessica Hayles) and Orlando (Nathan Hamilton) fall even deeper in love but there is a problem: Rosalind must hide her identity… and so begins a love triangle of epic proportions. Both Jessica Hayles and Nathan Hamilton excelled in their respective roles, with Hayles giving a strong epilogue directly to the audience. Casting her as one of Shakespeare’s strongest female leads was a masterstroke.

Not all was well in this production’s Forest of Arden, unfortunately. Despite the programme’s promise of “the land of evocative beauty that is Arden”, what was presented to the audience was a distressed and bare-looking tree, some white boxes, a telephone box (which was most out of place), and a blank background with some lighting effects.

I did not feel at all transported to a land of love and joviality by Libby Watson’s set. It lacked innovation, or any realism. The projections of birds and animals on the backdrop were insufficient in making up for the bareness of the stage and the severe lack of greenery – some leaves on the tree would have been a welcome addition. The poor company had to climb up and down the thing while it shook from side to side.

The play was saved by director Kate Saxon’s ability to bring to life to the sheer power and beauty of Shakespeare’s narrative. As You Like It is, in essence, a light-hearted and fictitious fairy-tale of a love story: it’s set in a forest of lovers and there are multiple, direct references to the art of theatre.

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Yet Saxon favours a more serious and bleak approach, particularly at the start when Orlando’s quarrelling with his brother Oliver (played well by Matthew Darcy) turns violent and causes him to be banished.

The dark lighting designs by Chris Davey, matched with Watson’s claustrophobic set made me feel I had the wrong ticket and was instead watching something markedly more gothic. Luckily, Shakespeare saved the day and all was well by the close of the curtain, but many opportunities for comedy were missed.

It is worth saying, however, that the darker tone led to some moments of sensitivity and real emotion – particularly when Hayles’s character is presented with Orlando’s blood-stained clothing. This production sees her distraught reaction represented through rhythmic dance and movement along to Richard Hammarton’s moving sound designs very effectively. Moreover, Hamilton exhibited stellar acting skills in the delivery of his lines, truly making Shakespeare’s verse and prose sound as if it were everyday English.

If you want to be transported to a faraway land of beauty and greenery, this production is possibly not for you. While I was left wanting slightly more, the final song and dance from the cast, in true Shakespearean fashion, left me feeling uplifted. It is worth a watch.

Produced by Shared Experience and Theatre by the Lake, As You Like It is touring until December 2017.

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