The Theatreguide.London Review
You Like It
RSC at Barbican Theatre Autumn-Winter 2019-2020
This may well be the
healthiest and happiest play ever written. It cheers your heart, raises
your spirits and cleanses your soul.
It is so perfect that even
the RSC's self-consciousness and ponderousness can't spoil it – though it
does seem at moments like they're trying.
This is the one in which a
boy and girl meet-cute, and the next time they meet she (for plot reasons
that make sense at the time) is disguised as a boy. He doesn't recognise
her, and to test him and tease herself she invites him to try out his
wooing techniques with her.
The very, very best thing
about this RSC production, beyond the play itself, is Lucy Phelps as
Rosalind. Phelps communicates both the spunky tomboyishness and the
love-sick femininity of the girl with equal believability and delight.
But even more, she recognises what too few Rosalinds realise – that the central joke of the play is not the trick she is playing on Orlando but the trap she has caught herself in, inviting him to declare his love for her while she has to remain aloof and resisting, when all she really wants to do is throw herself at him.
Lucy Phelps keeps Rosalind's
exquisite torment always dominant, so that we sympathise even as we laugh
at her plight. Much of the healthy spirit I mentioned earlier comes from
the play's warm love for all its characters, and Phelps keeps us always
wanting the best for Rosalind.
Her characterisation is the
engine that drives the play and you miss her whenever she's offstage.
Elsewhere, director Kimberley
Sykes has cast women in some roles written for men, with mixed results.
Sophie Stanton invests the cynic Jacques with unexpected and welcome
warmth by giving her melancholy a maternal flavour, as if she has seen too
much of the mess men have made of the world but can't help loving them
In less adept hands Jacques
can seem out of step with the rest of the play, and Stanton brings the
character into its charitable spirit.
Less successful is turning
the lovesick shepherd Silvius into rustic lesbian Silvia.
An essay in the programme
defends this in terms of the play's already-present toying with the
fluidity of gender identities. But that reads exactly like what it is, the
work of an Associate Professor of English, sure to lead to a promotion but
with no real relevance to the play as experienced by actual audiences. (As
a former Professor of English myself, I'm allowed to say that.)
Silvia's passion for Phoebe
requires too much cutting or rewriting of lines, makes mincemeat of the
characterisations, and just adds too little to the play.
Like most actors stuck with
playing Orlando David Ajao is unable to do much with the generally
thankless straight-man role. I've seen occasional Orlandos find a bit more
in the part, but there's no shame in failing. And Sophie Khan Levy is
given even less to work with as Celia, and must settle for serving the
play almost anonymously.
Sandy Grierson seems to have
taken Max Wall as his external model for Touchstone, half sad tramp and
half red-nose clown, but in the process he loses much sense of the
Forgive me for lapsing back
into ex-professor mode, but one of Touchstone's functions is to represent
a court figure totally out of place in the country ('A Fool in the
forest!' exclaims Jacques in delighted surprise), and Grierson offers too
little of that.
Another of Kimberley Sykes's
directorial choices is to play around with the fourth wall (again defended
by an academic article in the programme). But she does it so randomly and
inconsistently that those moments play like interruptions rather than a
controlling performance style.
The house lights are brought
up for most of the forest scenes, and set pieces like the Seven Ages Of
Man are played directly to us, with no pretence of naturalism.
The actors wander out into
the audience a couple of times, Touchstone showers the front row with
glitter for reasons I've forgotten, and a few audience members are dragged
onstage to play the trees Orlando writes his love poems on.
By the time we get to the
giant puppet in the last scene you can't help feeling money is being spent
just because money was there to be spent, not that it serves the play in
any real way.
See the play for Lucy Phelps's radiant Rosalind. See it for Sophie Stanton's warm and maternal Jacques. Above all, see it because the play itself is one of the wonders of the world.
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