POLLY CREED reviews ‘As You Like It’ at The National Theatre

I last saw Rosalie Craig at the National Theatre as the ‘Light Princess’, a role in which she sparkled. However, she doesn’t quite manage to bring the same warmth and emotional vulnerability to the role of Rosalind in Polly Findlay’s latest version of As You Like It in the NT’s Olivier Theatre. Craig’s Rosalind is extremely cerebral and sharp, but lacks the passion and giddy love that the greatest Rosalinds bring to the performance (for instance, Pippa Nixon’s portrayal in Maria Aberg’s 2013 RSC production). Cleverness and textual precision, rather than magic and emotional punch, were definitely the focus of this production. It left me, if not its entire audience, pleasantly interested, rather than enthralled.

The first scenes take place in a striking urban setting, complete with black office desks, halogen lamps and bonsai trees. Oliver (Philip Arditti) is depicted as the heir to a business empire, rather than as a noble, and Rosalind is a stiletto-ed, steely businesswoman. This vaguely surreal and dystopian setting works well, as does the slightly bizarre and very comical WWE-esque wrestling scene between Charles (Leon Annor) and Orlando (Joe Bannister). This contemporary edge stresses the problems of dynastic power and privilege in a really topical and pertinent way. It also facilitates a lot of humour and social satire in a remarkably fresh and exciting manner – the choreographed ritual of office workers eating sandwiches, for example.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The scene change, which transforms the polished urban world into the Forest of Arden, is one of the most superb and surprising I’ve ever seen (I won’t spoil the surprise further because it really is breath-taking). Indeed, Lizzie Clachan’s set is definitely one of the key features of the production and responds to and engages with the action in a mesmerising fashion; even if the fully-formed Arden is a little disappointing. Instead of portraying the forest as a place of liberation and sanctuary, a rustic utopia where magic and poetry are possible, sadly the discomfort and danger of the forest are the main focus.

There are moments in this production where the real warmth and charm of As You Like It shine through: Patsy Ferran’s Celia is funny and soulful; Siobhan McSweeney makes for an incredibly charismatic and likeable Audrey; and the true comic genius of the shepherd, (Alan Williams) whose flock – the whole cast garbed in white woolly jumpers – ramble and bleat around the stage on their hands and knees. Findlay also uses sound to great effect; feathery, sprite-like musicians are suspended from the set, creating the voice and harmonies of the forest in a nod to its mystery and esoteric beauty.

Overall, it is a fresh and intelligent approach to the play, which highlights many aspects of the text that I had never considered. It was a shame though that, in all the cleverness and textual richness of the production, love and the magic of human emotion take a back-seat. As Rosalind says, speaking of her love for Orlando, ‘love is a madness’ and this was a very sane production indeed.

‘As You Like It’ is currently in repertory at the National Theatre until early March 2016. To book tickets visit http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/as-you-like-it