When Gregory Doran's "knitwear" production of As You Like It opened in Stratford last spring, it was fervently rubbished by virtually all reviewers. Perhaps it is that it no longer has to stand invidious comparison with Michael Grandage's thoughtful, profound version which was also going the rounds at that time, perhaps it is the change of venue, perhaps simply a rethink has taken place... but for whatever reason or combination of reasons, on its unveiling at The Pit I found it utterly delightful.
The space certainly has something to do with it. In David Fielding's blank white cube of a redesigned Pit, the various environments – the sombre court and in particular the changing seasons in the Forest of Arden – need to be delineated other than by set, and so why not use big throw cushions turned over to reveal huge floral motifs and a selection of Kaffe Fassett jumpers and cardies moving gradually from monochrome to gaudy warmth? Yes, it still looks fairly daft, but daft within the compass of a Shakespearean festive comedy, not outright ridiculous.
Alexandra Gilbreath, whose Juliet (also, at the time, about to reopen at the Barbican) I bemoaned last year as too mature for the character, here shows a ceaseless, inexhaustible vivacity of voice and face as Rosalind. The joy of Gilbreath's Rosalind is that at every instant she is "on" – not in a limelight-hogging way, but constantly alive to and interacting with the stimuli around her. She is not alone in this; Nancy Carroll as her prissier cousin Celia is likewise alert and responsive at all times, and it can be a secret treat, during the Rosalind/Orlando wooing scenes, to look periodically over to the side wall where Celia is crouched unobtrusively, pretending to read a book but keenly eavesdropping the whole time. But Gilbreath's animation is entrancing. She rides the switchback of Rosalind's quick-change emotions through the latter acts by keeping a tight hold on the unexpected, even unrealised fervour of her love for Orlando. She may eschew one or two of the standard Rosalind tricks (such as giving significant weight to the phrase "And I for no woman" in the antiphonal what-is-love routine in Act IV), but she misses none.
This is, as I say, a festive comedy, and that is Doran's guiding light; his happy ending is so comprehensively happy that, uniquely in my experience, even the lovelorn swain William gets a girl. Declan Conlon's Galway accent is well suited to the lines of Jaques, but the melancholy lord is not this time an equal partner in events, and at the denouement his minor-key modulation sounds only briefly and softly. The ducal court itself is a black and brutal place, with Ian Hogg's Duke Frederick basically a well-spoken, sadistic thug, but nor is it allowed to overshadow the sylvan frolics in Arden. Doran's production casts no new light on the play, to be sure, but rather paints its conventional colours invigoratingly afresh.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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