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A CurtainUp London Review
As You Like It
by John Thaxter
Cooke's production now transfers from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to crown and complete the RSC's quartet of Comedies at the gloriously refurbished Novello Theatre. Rae Smith's design is a giant greenwood tree, perhaps an evergreen Sequoia, seen first in the depths of a snowy winter, decked in Christmas lights. This sets the scene for Orlando's bruising encounter with Charles the wrestler and for that mutual and sudden buzz of attraction when he first meets Rosalind. Then as the action moves to Arden in high summer, its outstretched branches offer convenient hooks for Orlando's love poems.
Astonishingly for such an acclaimed actress, Rosalind is Williams' first Shakespearean role, and I was not altogether convinced by her transformation into a cross-dressing Ganymede, which she plays as a laddish, swaggering tomboy while still beautifully catching the pangs and uncertainties of love. Hatless and with a shirt hanging half out of her trousers, her costume is the evening's only design flaw.
Williams also comes up against formidable competition from Amanda Harris as her demure cousin Celia and, in this version a potential romantic rival. Wearing neat specs which she flirtatiously removes whenever she encounters Orlando, hers is a playful, scene-stealing performance
Williams' best moments are her glorious androgynous wooing scenes with Barnaby Kay whose Hollywood tough-guy good looks proves strong, lively casting for Orlando as her ardent, youthful lover who swings from the branches and cycles around Rosalind with impudent joy. As played here he seems instantly to see through her disguise. Their match is capped by a prolonged kiss and her shy "fathoms deep" declaration of love.
Rustic romance also adds to the fun, with Meg Fraser almost unrecognisable as the gap-toothed goat herd Audrey, leaping with delight at the comic, half-hearted proposal by Paul Chahidi's Touchstone as the forest fool, before returning glammed-up in a too-tight wedding dress. Caitlin Mottram with a perfect Avon accent plays a more than usually comely Phoebe, preferring the unavailable Ganymede to Jamie Ballard's doting Silvius.
Gary Yershon's score provides slightly tuneless settings of the poems sung by Gurpreet Singh as well as a toe-tapping, banjo version of "Hey-Nonny-No" that should surely have been reprised as the play-out. Joseph Mydell's suave Antillean Jacques, no melancholy sage in his panama hat, stills the action with a steadily delivered "Seven Ages" speech. But the best verse-speaking comes from John Mackay as Orlando's brother, telling the terrifying tale of a serpent and a lion and, as Rosalind still in Ganymede disguise swoons into his surprised arms, suddenly discovering breasts under her loose shirt.
Look out too for Jonathan Newth playing both the Dukes with some nifty changes of costume, and for Miles Richardson as an elegant, powerfully played courtier Le Beau. Perhaps New York readers may have the opportunity to see them if this fine production has a life beyond our shores.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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