Monday, April 22

As You Like It – Liverpool Playhouse

In their 30th anniversary production, Northern Broadsides, under the direction of Laurie Sansom, bring a bold approach to Shakespeare’s most musical and much-loved comedy. Unfortunately, we are met more with a misguided fantasy than a great production.

In a stylish but stifling court, where the Duke (Tom Shaw) is all powerful and brute strength is championed over basic human decency, the high-spirited Rosalind (Em Williams) and devoted cousin Celia (Isobel Coward) are no longer welcome.

When they escape into the forest in disguise, accompanied by Touchstone (Joe Morrow), they bump into the recent object of Rosalind’s affection, Orlando (Shaban Dar), who has fallen foul of Oliver (Aron Julius) but is supported by Adam (Claire Hackett), leading to an elaborate game of fluid identity where, as Jacques (Adam Kashmiry) so eloquently puts it, all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.

As the seasons change in this magical place, normal roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in this celebration of the transformative power of love and the natural world, featuring some of Shakespeare’s most vivid characters including Phoebe (Gemma Dobson), Silvius (Bailey Brook), Amiens (Jo Patmore) and Audrey (Terri Jade Donovan), and memorable poetry.

Photo: Andrew Billington

There is much debate about dramatic interpretation but if you are going to reinterpret more akin to a queer riot then be brave enough to re-tell the tale in your own way rather than interjecting some of drama’s greatest lines with cabaret interludes, wrestling scenes, and put down one-liners in modern English. The result is a confused production incorporating a mishmash of varying takes on the play, whilst the regular breaking of the fourth wall smacked of ‘look how clever we are’ when arguably it wasn’t really clever enough.

We were advised at the start of the production that due to illness in the preceding 24 hours, Shaw and Julius were stepping in and would be performing script in hand. To their credit, both got the spirit of the piece and acted well although it appears this isn’t the first time that local stand-ins have been brought at the eleventh hour during the tour so one does wonder whether there are other factors going on behind the scenes.

This is a play whose humour comes from Shakespeare’s clever blurring of the gender divide and which the audience are in on throughout, so there is a certain irony that much has been made of the varied gender alignments of this cast: who cares, what’s their delivery like? Sadly, here it was more miss than hit with some shouting lines and losing their diction whilst others were determined to over-articulate their points on stage.

With so much of this production not really adding up it is probably adding salt to the wound when the strongest elements were those that embraced the traditional: Brook and Dobson excelled as Silvius and Phoebe, and I really enjoyed Donovan’s Audrey. The compositions from Robert Bentall, played and sung principally by Patmore, along with the accompanying choreography from the cast worked well, as did added touches such as the flock of bleating sheep played by members of the cast on all fours, although the camp compere of a shepherd did ruin the effect somewhat.

It all started thirty years ago with Barrie Rutter until he stepped down in 2018 in frustration at what he saw as inadequate Arts Council funding for the company. Four years on, and I daresay now ticking all the boxes, in a play that revels in mistaken identities, I’m somewhat concerned that Northern Broadsides may have lost theirs.

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 25th May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★