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Comedy Focus For Bright Adaptation of Rom Com Tale
As You Like It is already known for being a light and fluffy rom-com from Shakespeare but a new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is injecting even more humour and originality to the popular piece.
It's a play of contrasts - starting off in the very dark, menacing world of mean Duke Frederick, where a swing and grass circle belie the treacherous undercurrent. Several key characters are banished or flee to the Forest of Arden to escape the Duke by the end of the first section, when the play shifts in a whole different direction.
Visibly the layers have been peeled back, included the grass and backstage curtain, when the action moves to the forest. The lights are lifted in the auditorium and there is a clear pause in the proceedings as a clothes rack is wheeled on stage and actors scramble to change costumes in plain view before taking on new characters. There's also comical tannoy announcements to accompany this unexpected break.
Director Kimberley Sykes keeps the lights on as the drama continues in a much brighter environment that is packed with actor-audience participation to relive how it would have been done in Shakespeare's day.
Antony Byrne (centre) is beguiling as Duke Senior and Duke Frederick
This production of sharp contrasts, sardonic wit and a lively, two-way relationship with the audience breathes new life into the well known comedy.
As in so many of Shakespeare's plots, there's a gender swapping storyline at its heart and a romance based on mistaken identity and sex.
Rosalind, who is on the run from evil Duke Frederick, pretends to be young man Ganymede, which causes all kinds of erotic difficulties when she bumps into her beloved, Orlando, who has also fled to the woods, but naturally doesn't recognise her while she's dressed as a man.
Lucy Phelps is an energetic and forceful presence on stage as Rosalind. Played with a wily nature, it's easy to see how Rosalind runs rings around a gentler, less forceful Orlando (David Ajao).
In many senses, this production puts the focus firmly on strong women.
Traveller Jacques' role has been cast as a female with Sophie Stanton taking it on with a lovely sarcasm and world weariness in this melancholy role. She has the iconic speech 'All the world's a stage' and delivers the seven ages of man in a beautifully descript way.
Meanwhile, shepherd Sylvius has also been given a gender swap into Sylvia and it's refreshing to see Audrey as a strong-willed deaf character.
The close relationship between Rosalind and her cousin Celia is treated as two teenage bffs, who together, you feel could conquer anything or anyone. They have a great chemistry together and Sophie Khan Levy as Celia shows a natural ability for comedy.
When it comes to the laughs though, these are firmly taken care of by Sandy Grierson as the fool Touchstone and Emily Johnstone as attendant Amiens. They both have the audience in stitches with a sly glance here or slapstick antic there.
You may remember experienced actor Grierson impressing as the lead in Doctor Faustus in the Swan Theatre a couple of years ago. He plays it more for laughs in this production but he seems to have a natural instinct to feed off the audience. It makes you feel that he is giving a unique performance every show.
Touchstone's scenes with a deaf Audrey take on a whole new clever level of comedy as his sign language interpreter delivers more than Touchstone bargained for. It's a great innovative new aspect to the play that also shows how theatre is moving with the times.
Antony Byrne, in duel roles as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior masterfully leads the action, but I think his vicious, ungratious turn as Frederick is more powerful - but the bad guys always are the best to play.
Director Sykes has played around with the gender mix-up comedy to make it more contemporary and less conservative.
Changing shepherd Sylvius into Silvia, to bring about a same-sex union between her and Phoebe works ok until the finale when it doesn't quite fit in the plot. It doesn't explain why Phoebe would be so turned off Ganymede turning out to be a woman in the form of Rosalind if she is ok with marrying Sylvia anyway.