Much has been made of the fact that David Lan’s new production of this Shakespearean romantic comedy stars West End virgin Sienna Miller as Celia, the close friend of the play’s cross-dressing heroine Rosalind.
Still better known as a fashion trendsetter and as Jude Law’s girlfriend than as an actress, her inclusion in the cast caused some surprise. And hers was not the only unexpected name; comedians Sean Hughes and Reece Shearsmith also feature in a play that is obviously eager to draw a larger audience than the usual Shakespeare-going crowd.
All this meant that the casting of the magnificent Helen McCrory as Rosalind was rather overshadowed when in fact it is her performance that elevates this very slick but somewhat superficial production into something stronger.
Lan has opted to set his new version of the play in 1940s France, a decision that seems motivated only by the desire to kit his actors out in cool suits and chic dresses. There’ s no allusion made to the war and the French flavour comes mainly from the music that peppers the production. As You Like It has a high song count for a Shakespeare play and Lan brings them to the fore especially in the closing scene when a green-suited Hymen struts his stuff across the stage. What results veers very closely to full-on musical territory at times, a fact acknowledged by the casting of Clive Rowe as Duke Senior.
Sienna Miller, however, makes for an anonymous Celia, perfectly pleasant but nothing more and Sean Hughes’ sluggish performance as Touchstone the clown never really gets off the ground. The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith (sans wig and freakish teeth for a change) makes a far better impression, displaying a grumpy charm as Jacques, though his delivery of the “All the world’s a stage” speech doesn’t quite pack the punch that it could.
The production is also rather genital-centric in its humour, never missing an opportunity to highlight the crude potential of the Bard’s lines. It’s an unnecessary tactic that does neither the actors nor the audience any favours. The play, however, has many subtler pleasures, chief among them the relationship between Rosalind and Orlando. Dominic West is incredibly rugged and charming as the latter, and Helen McCrory simply dazzling as Rosalind even if her character is a little too prone to blubbing and fainting.
Confident yet conflicted, and very at home in her snappy suit, she brings warmth and intelligence to the production and sparks nicely off her Orlando. Flirting with him whilst in the guise of Ganymede she charges their intimate moments with an intriguing sexual ambiguity as they tease and toy with one another in an increasingly intense manner.
While its earlier scenes are atmospheric yet convoluted, the play really comes together in its tighter, brighter second half and the fluffy yet touching dnouement is very satisfying. This whimsical production contains many pleasures and, though it can justifiably be accused of utilising novelty casting, it has in, Helen McCrory and Dominic West, two fine central performances that more than make up for the play’s shortcomings.