celia and rosalind

Maureen Beattie as Celia and Geraldine James as Rosalind. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

As you Like It

Royal Shakespeare Theatre



We knew he was good, but who knew that Shakespeare not only gave us some of the greatest plays in our native tongue, bringing us lovers and villains, comedy and tragedy, he expanded and coloured our language with words and sayings a plenty and on top of all that – he invented improv.

Anyone turning up at Stratford expecting that wonderful stage to be transformed into the magical Forest of Arden is going to be . . . well, not so much disappointed as royally entertained, but not as they expected.

What we have is a sort of play within a play, and moreover a play that becomes, much like the cast, funnier with age, with almost sketches rather than scenes. Some of the lines need the experience of creaking joints, of kneeling down and wondering how to get back up again and all the dubious pleasures of age to be really appreciated.

The premise is that the cast of the play from the 1978 production (there wasn’t one so don’t bother looking it up) are having a reunion and are meeting up in a rehearsal room which has much in common with a 1930’s village hall with its notice board and stacking chairs.

So, the cast members meander in, fine examples of Shakespeare’s fifth, perhaps, and sixth, more likely, ages of man.

Some of the original cast are indisposed, so some youngsters have been drafted in to fill their ancient shoes, while some . . . the actor who played Orlando’s servant Adam would have been 114 had he been there. He has reached the seventh age, the sans everything bit so he is played in spirit and with due affection and reverence by an overcoat.


James Hayes (clasical actor) as Touchstone and Cleo Sylvestre as Audrey.

The cast sit at the rear, by the coffee, scripts in hand, prompting as necessary, with scenes acted out as in rehearsal, in what becomes a play not so much about young lovers, but about age, about memory, but above all about the sort of acting that makes theatre such a magical place.

In the play Orlando and Rosalind are young lovers, teenagers no doubt, yet here are Malcolm Sinclair, who reached 73 last month, and Geraldine James, 73 tomorrow, (6 July, so happy birthday for the morrow, dear lady), stripping away the years and giving us the innocence of youth. She is the epitome of the headstrong teenager, he the lovelorn youth, caught in the passion of teenage love.

James must have signed pact with the devil to lose half a century in her delightful performance both as Rosalind and in her disguise as the shepherd boy Ganymede after she is banished by Duke Frederick after . . . its all a bit complicated, and you don’t really need to know all the ins and outs. Let's just say it was messy.

She is matched, in acting and almost age by Maureen Beattie as her best friend and cousin Celia, Frederick’s daughter, who goes into exile with her, Beattie having some lovely funny asides and moments as she rescues Rosalind, who has a habit of digging herself into holes. Escaping into exile she is disguised as Aliena.

Shakespeare had a habit of chucking in fools and jesters, and here we have Touchstone, performed by James Hayes (classical actor) who, you feel, considers his talents somewhat wasted in the part. It is a simply brilliant performance of full of fun and displaying faultless timing, a sort of thinking man’s clown.


Geraldine James in full flow as Rosalind.

And Shakespeare does like to run a sort of marriage bureau in his comedies, pairing up all the loose ends so Touchstone ends up with the shepherdess Audrey, played by Cleo Sylvestre. But first he has to fight off William, not Will-I-am, incidentally, another Shepherd – just for your information the Forest of Arden, apart from the odd banished duke, appears to be populated almost entirely by shepherds and shepherdesses.

The first we come across being Corin, played by David Sibley, whose meeting with Touchstone is to set the scene of the simple, gentle, satisfying life in the country against the hustle and bustle, pomp and finery of the court.

But back to the gentle, easy ways of country life as Touchstone threatens to kill William, played by Ewart James Walters, in 150 different ways, then demonstrates a fair number of them before William out of fear, or maybe boredom, wanders off, leaving Audrey to Touchstone. Shakespeare apparently also invented hand grenades and machine guns, which is useful to know for pub quizzes.

Luckily Touchstone did not take on Walters in Act I when he was Charles the wrestler, who was defeated in a somewhat gentle fight by Orlando. Gentle because hips and more mature bones (we hate the word old) don’t appreciate WWE stuff.

Then we have lovelorn Silvius, another shepherd (told you) played by David Fielder, who has fallen hook, line and shepherd’s crook for Pheobe, who is, I’ll let you guess, but it begins with an s and is to do with sheep.

But Phoebe, played demurely by Celia Bannerman, has fallen for Ganymede, which, you remember, is Rosalind disguised as a shepherd . . . what else.

And Oliver, played by Michael Bertenshaw, Orlando’s older brother, who is not a shepherd, falls instantly for Celia, who is disguised as Aliena.

With a bit of clever trading Rosalind gets phoebe to marry Silvius and reveals herself to Orlando so we end with a mass wedding and Duke Frederick, played by Robin Soans, who also plays his  older brother Duke Senior who was exiled after Fred seized the throne, sees the error of his ways, and all and everyone are forgiven.


Malcolm Sinclair as Orlando

So everyone can go back to court and live happily ever after, apart from Jaques, who decides to stay in the forest and be happily miserable ever after. We are never quite sure who Jaques, played morosely by the alternate Christopher Saul, actually is. He seems to be a lord of some type and sort  of pops up, spreading doom and gloom, but he does have the most famous speech in the play with All the world’s a stage, delivered with studied hesitancy.

There is wonderful support in what is a much trimmed down script, with asides and funny moments turning it into a glorious comedy helped along by Shakespeare’s wonderful wit and mastery of the language he has so enhanced.

There are unexpected moments, such as when a rock band descends from the flies in a sort of cage to end Act I, the excellent four piece band consigned to the balcony for act II, Then for a brief moment at the end of Act II the rear wall lifts and the magical Forest of Arden is revealed and our characters can enter it through the appropriately left in situ exit before Rosalind recites a new epilogue written in Bard style by Robin Soans, he of the twin dukes.

As we said at the start this is a marvellous show for anyone and, perhaps poignantly, even better for those of a certain age, easy to spot as they were the ones taking longer to stand up, and then having to persuadre legs to move at both interval and curtain.

Director Omar Elerian and dramaturg Rebecca Latham have created a cut down As You Like It, seeing the play from a different angle. Perhaps no longer ideal for an aid to, for example, GCSE or A level Eng Lit, but purely as a piece of theatre, a wonderful evening’s entertainment showing what actors can create on a stage with no scenery or props - a sort of Shakespeare unplugged. To 05-08-23.

Roger Clarke


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