Star rating – 9/10
The Royal Exchange goes for a stripped down, bare stage look for its latest Shakespearean venture for the comedy ‘As You Like It’. But this production is a rich one, with beautiful music and singing, and the sounds of the forest of Arden being cleverly conveyed without the need for elaborate scenery or props.
This play has some of the Bard’s favourite elements of brotherly hatred, a bit of cross dressing, mistaken identity, and comic musings of a philosophical bent. And of course a healthy dose of romance – this time it is principally between Rosalind, an ill treated duke’s daughter forced to flee her uncle’s palace with her true friend Celia for the forest; and Orlando, an ill treated duke’s son who is forced by his wicked brother to flee his home for the forest with his trusty old servant Adam – you get the picture.
Cush Jumbo is impressive as Rosalind, which is quite a demanding role as she plays both female and male versions of the character. She seems to have grown as an actor since playing Eliza Doolittle here in 2010’s Pygmalion. Then she was good, but in this production she is great. Orlando, her love at first sight beau is played by Ben Batt, who with his beautiful cheekbones and gruff Northern charm, is perfect.
It is one of those Shakespeare plays that is bursting with magical prose and famous lines that cannot fail to delight. And it is very, very funny, with the principal hilarity provided by the jester Touchstone, with Ian Bartholomew showing the Exchange audience again what a great comic actor he is. He last shone here as Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion and is if anything even more sparkling here. One of the army of forest dwellers, the sentimental and philosophical Jaques is the other stand out comic role in the play, and it is played for every laugh going by James Clyde. He is an absolute star and plays the role in a humorous, washed up, rock and roll kind of way before flouncing off to his cave.
It’s not a short play, but it fizzes by in this great production by Greg Hersov. There are some very nice original touches, such as the playboy asses’ ears and bunny girls to convey the debauchery of the Duke’s palace, if slightly controversial for Shakespeare purists like my mother. I’m not a purist though – just after a great night at the theatre – and this is absolutely it.