Those watching the latest take on As You Like It at the National Theatre should bring along a pair of skis: after an initial display of bravado direction and jaw-dropping set design, it is largely all downhill.
It’s been 36 years since Shakespeare’s superb comedy of romantic entanglements appeared at the NT and it is as relevant as ever. The feudal feuding between dukes and lords now appears archaic, but the play’s nods to gentrification and gender-bending are not unknown in modern London while characters fall in and out of love faster than one can say “Netflix and chill”. It’s the kind of play that in style starts out as Game Of Thrones and ends up as Bridget Jones.
The stunning visuals added to this well known work are a resounding success. Rather than the usual castle setting, the play begins in a day-glo open plan office where workers type and squawk when not dining on a deskwich lunch. Keeping to the theme, Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer) is portrayed as a besuited manager while loverboy Orlando is dressed in drab overalls. Rather than the usual straightforward grapple, this Orlando goes toe-to-toe with an outsized luchador cheered on by the office drones. And just when we have adjusted to this colourful scenery, set designer Lizzie Clachan turns the tables by magically transforming the desks and chairs into a dark and atmospheric forest.
What follows from that point on is paint-by-numbers Shakespeare albeit with some whimsical lo-fi touches. Characters zip in and out accompanied by enchanting and atmospheric a capella background effects and, at one point, most of the cast members don aran sweaters and wander around the stage on all fours pretending to be sheep. The exhilarating innovations and risk-taking seen during the early stages, though, dissipate like the forest’s foggy atmosphere.
The cast is a mixed bag but largely excel in bring the Bard’s gagfest to life. Rosalie Craig is as sparky as Rosalinds come and she delivers many of her fine lines with cheerful wit. Patsy Ferran as Celia often steals scenes from Rosalind with her bountiful charm, charisma and chemistry. Maybe she should lend some of that to Joe Bannister who, as romantic lead Orlando, fails to connect with either the audience or his supposed amour.
Similarly, the supporting cast is in the main marvellous. Mark Benton may yet escape being typecast as a sitcom sidekick if his chucklesome turn as the fool Touchstone is anything to go by. Paul Chahidi’s Jaques has the most iconic speech (“All the world’s a stage”) but his ponderous take squeezes the very life from it. The colourblind casting of Wringer is a masterstroke, his austere tone providing just the right level of gravity to a play which ultimately fails to live up to its early promise.
As You Like It continues at the National Theatre, South Bank SE1 9PX until 5 March. Tickets are £15-£55. Every Friday at 1pm, a limited number of £20 tickets will be released online for the following week’s performances. Day tickets are available at £15 on the day of the performance. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.