Shakespeare’s ongoing dominance of the British stage (that which is all the world) has been reaffirmed recently in Parliament. His place in the school curriculum has been declared sacrosanct, alongside healthy eating and the two world wars.
Unlike those last events though, the bard allows our schoolchildren some levity, and there’s plenty of fun to be had for them and for the rest of us in Sam West’s take on As You Like It.
This Forest of Arden is like a minimalist melange of Scandinavian design and Eastern European influences – a kind of As You L-ikea It, with its bold colours and shapes and functionalist feel. The various bits of stage furniture are the source of countless sight-gags, providing some of the best laughs of the show – even with the timeless wit of the script as competition.
Any production of As You Like It depends upon a worthy Rosalind. In this respect, Eve Best surpasses the already high expectations, stealing every scene and wringing every possible laugh and nuance out of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Rosalind’s deception and domination of her beloved Orlando usually requires a greater leap of the imagination but here it is utterly convincing, aided by Sam Troughton’s chaotic love-drunk turn as the estranged heir.
Whilst the cast are excellent throughout, these central performances clearly stand up above the rest, largely in their ability to get the best from the text itself. Despite their ubiquitous presence on our stages, all Shakespeare’s comedies contain plenty of jokes and references that aren’t anywhere near as easily transferable to a twentieth century audience as is often made out. The universal exposure to Shakespeare at school helps, but there’s still huge tracts of dialogue here that seem to be almost in the way, being raced through at speed because they’re there, with the odd gesture thrown in as an act of translation for the audience.
Very occasionally the mind wanders and I found myself asking – by producing an inspired modern staging of As You Like It, has Sam West moved it into an oeuvre where the setting and performances impress much more than the play itself? Maybe directing the play feels somewhat like being one of it’s many fools – wringing the very best out of the central players but ending up yourself a bit befuddled?
These moments were short, however. All in all this is a superb production that largely succeeds in feeling fresh even with such familiar material. With the upcoming Crucible refurbishment putting Sheffield Theatres into temporary hibernation next year, every minute spent at one of this years productions suddenly seems that much more precious – and this As You Like It is no exception.