As You Like It, thought to have been written in 1599, was historically never one of Shakespeare’s most popular pieces, his tortured kings and princes apparently preferred by audiences and critics over his frolicksome pastorals. It has come to the fore in more recent years with multiple adaptations on stage, screen and even radio. Northern Broadsides’ production focuses on the power of love coupled with the force of nature to change the world. So “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”.
Duke Frederick has exiled his older brother, Duke Senior, to usurp his duchy. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, was permitted to remain in court but is then likewise exiled for reasons which are never entirely clear. She leaves with her cousin, Celia, and they disguise themselves and head for the Forest of Arden. Rosalind’s love interest, Orlando, is being persecuted by his older brother, so he too leaves for the forest. He meets Rosalind, now in disguise as a young man, Ganymede, who teaches Orlando how to woo Rosalind by pretending, as Ganymede, to be her (yes, it’s convoluted). There’s much confusion, sibling rivalry, love triangles and a happy ending, but not before the melancholy Jacques has reminded them all of the actual hardships of real life in the countryside. He storms off in a huff, leaving all the happy couples to revel in their love.
Laurie Sansom’s production relishes the fun that can be had in a pastoral world where everyone can be exactly who they want to be. The twelve accomplished performers take this playfulness and run with it, with many taking on multiple roles (including “goat” in one hilarious scene). EM Williams’ Rosalind is a joy, simultaneously feisty and flinty as she flirts with Orlando while hiding her love for him. Orlando (Shaban Dar) is a convincing foil to Rosalind. As with many of Shakespeare’s works, it’s the players around the main protagonists who often stand out. Here, Touchstone, played by Joe Morrow as an unapologetic, in-your-face drag queen, steals every scene and ad libs some of them. It’s a tour-de-force performance of great fun. The other country-folk, bawdy, lusty and brilliant, also light up the stage. Special kudos also to Robin Simpson, who stepped in to play Duke Frederick and his brother, Duke Senior, at the eleventh hour.
The set design by EM Parry cleverly focuses on the clothes that help to transform identity. Items of clothing hang around the stage, hat stands are trees and clothes racks are bushes for characters to hide behind. The costumes echo this theme, eclectically chosen from all eras. So, there are modern pieces, puffa jackets and chinos, contrasting with farthingales and military uniforms, echoing the diversity and boldness of the characters, cast and the production itself.
It’s unfortunate that Wilton’s acoustics, better suited to musicals than plays, swallowed some of the dialogue, particularly when cast were upstage and speaking the lines at speed, as this at times detracted from the players’ performances. But this is an energetic and playfully physical production full of joy and the transformative power of love. One not to be missed.
Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It is at Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday, 14th May, then tours to Leeds, Liverpool, Bury St Edmunds, Halifax, Doncaster and Harrogate. Tickets are on sale from: https://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/shows/as-you-like-it/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 11th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★