Wednesday 23rd March 2022 at York Theatre Royal.
As You Like It is a tricky comedy to stage. It’s rich with famous Shakespearean gems and some great characters, but it’s also labyrinthian in places and it’s certainly one of the more overly generous of Will’s plays in terms of running time, which makes it all the more impressive that Northern Broadsides’ production is as engaging, impactful and accessible as it is.
I won’t go into too much detail or there’ll be no room left to review the production, but in brief, Rosalind falls for Orlando (and vice versa). Soon after such swooning, she is cast out by her kinsman. Seeking refuge in the Forest of Arden disguised as a boy (along with her faithful cousin Celia), she bumps into Orlando again and decides the best option, naturally, is to use her disguise to have him woo her as if she were the girl he so adores…which of course…she is. Much else happens besides, but the heart of As You Like It resides with Rosalind and her shenanigans.
Comedy fodder is generous and lands beautifully for the most part thanks to a very capable and versatile cast. Highlights include the glorious northern-ness of Claire Hackett’s servant and Shepherdess and the brilliant Joe Morrow’s playful compère take on Touchstone the Clown – both of which offer fantastic examples of how pleasingly Shakespeare’s text hugs a broad northern accent. Other sharp comedy turns include Bailey Brook’s tragi-comic take on the fawning Silvius who has so misguidedly fallen for the brutally disinterested Phoebe – played by a very funny Gemma Dobson. Shaban Dar’s Orlando is given endearing love-languid charm founded on the sweet trappings of youth; mildly clumsy, deeply sincere and prone to comic hyperbole. With Covid disruption within the cast, Jo Patmore nobly steps in as Celia and brings a warm, reassuring presence to proceedings as well as a beautiful voice which is put to excellent use.
And at the very heart of everything is EM Williams as Rosalind. Williams is a gifted Shakespearean actor and in their hands, Shakespeare’s text become disarmingly everyday. The beauty and depth of famous lines is preserved so that they always hit their mark but the nuances of ordinary exchanges are embedded so well and so naturally that the play becomes impressively accessible. Williams also adds layers of meaning with their physicality as much as intonation – rarely do we see a performer who speaks their lines as much through their movement as through their words so well, and when it comes to staging a 1599 play for a 2022 audience, a performance like Williams’ is golden.
The overall concept here is also impressive in its clarity and boldness and director Laurie Sansom seeks to celebrate gender fluidity where others may just see simple traditional cross dressing in the name of farce. E.M. Parry’s designs go a long way in convincing us of the freedoms within the Forest of Arden, toying with ideas about gendered costume from the outset by positioning characters within a runway-style freedom; they pick and choose from a rack and their ensembles declare that anything goes. Fluid costuming is no longer the domain of characters in disguise alone as characters peripheral to the central trickery are costumed with equal freedom. Likewise, clothes dangle from hangers over the stage for the duration, signposting disguise as a driving force but also acting as a reminder of sorts of the ease with which such garments can obscure or clarify the human connections playing out beneath.
Northern Broadsides have certainly succeeded in their staging here and in delivering such a tricky piece with such clarity of intention, they’ve produced the kind of play which illustrates the versatility and enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s work very nicely indeed.