a Shakespeare play that's new to me to one I'm very familiar with, As You Like It having been the first Shakespeare comedy I saw on stage in 1989, and the one that made me realise their humour can still work today. Accordingly it's also a play I can be very particular about, and have been known to get stroppy if I think it's been poorly served by the production. This year's RSC offering though comes with a promising pedigree: Maria Aberg directed my favourite Shakespeare of 2012, King John, and here she reunites with its leads, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, to take on Rosalind and Orlando. Rosalind's father, the Duke Senior, has been deposed and exiled by his younger brother Frederick. When she spots the mistreated young nobleman Orlando de Boys winning a wrestling match, he and Rosalind fall in love. Shortly afterwards they're banished, separately, to the forest, and by the time they meet again Rosalind is disguised as a boy - a subterfuge she now uses to test and toy with her lover.
I'd be lying if I said this was the funniest As You Like It you could ever see, although it does have its share of funny moments. Where Aberg continues to shine is in an attention to detail within a high concept that, if not quite as breathtaking as Rupert Goold's, makes her his natural successor at the RSC.
Here the conceit, backed up by getting Laura Marling to compose the music, is of a Glastonbury-like, hippyish festival feel, Cliff Burnett's long-haired, chillaxed Duke Senior attended for the most part by much younger courtiers hanging out in tents and hammocks like festival-goers who've latched on to some '70s folk music icon. By contrast the court of the usurping Duke Frederick is a cold, threatening place. John Stahl used to be best recognised for a mass of white hair surrounding his head, but over the last couple of years the beard's been disappearing until now face and head are shaved, and it's quite the transformation as he becomes, despite his size, an almost ghoulish figure, defined by rage and paranoia, in one of the production's many outstanding performances.
In the biggest female role in all of Shakespeare, Nixon is a particularly boyish Rosalind who only really comes into her own in her Ganymede alter-ego. She and Waldmann build on their chemistry from last year to create a sexy couple, Nixon's convincingness as a boy lending the relationship a hint of homoeroticism - this is an Orlando who knows something's a bit off about Ganymede without ever quite twigging that he's really a woman, but is aroused by their flirtation anyway.
In contrast to her tomboyish cousin, Celia is the girly-girl and one of those characters who can steal the show, and she's well-served by Joanna Horton, who arrives at the forest laden with far too much luggage. I was glad to see that Horton will be playing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well next month as that particularly difficult anti-heroine needs a strong actress. As for another tricky part, the role of Celia's love interest goes to Luke Norris. It's never easy to reconcile the villainous Oliver de Boys we see at the start of the play with the giddy lover he returns as, but Norris does at least find a consistency between the prissy, espresso-drinking Oliver who wouldn't mind so much if his brother died in his wrestling match, and the nerdy explorer with laminated maps he becomes once kicked out into the forest. (I can't believe I was the only one who laughed at his cardigan! Some great costumes from Naomi Dawson, although her set design plonking a massive great pillar in our eyeline for little good reason is a big minus point.)
Nicolas Tennant's Touchstone takes a while to make his mark although a scene of silent comedy with Robin Soans' Corin after the interval, and a later break from the text to ad-lib with the audience brings the clown to life more, as does his pursuit of the "foul" Audrey (Rosie Hilal.) The play's fourth couple, Phoebe and Silvius are served well by a green-toothed Natalie Klamar and Michael Grady-Hall, and Aberg's fine eye for interesting character choices goes all the way to Chris Jared's handsome, guitar-playing Amiens (as well as getting a laugh out of his return doubling as the long-lost middle brother Jaques de Boys who's barely been referenced until then) while Dave Fishley's Rastafarian is the most memorable Sir Oliver Martext I've seen (in my mental fanfic, he's the old religious man Duke Frederick meets in the woods, and the massive spliff he's smoking a major factor in the villain's conversion.)
Aberg also continues to gender-swap characters where possible, the court gossip Le Beau becoming Karen Archer's La Belle. I was less taken with Jaques, who I think was meant to be tripping on something, but then I've never warmed to former EnsembleTM member Oliver Ryan, whose overly sibilant speech I still find impenetrable despite the amount of times I've seen him on stage now. I also can't forgive the three-and-a-quarter-hour running time for a fairly frothy comedy - Marling's laid-back music infecting the pace of everything else and showing up the play's less successful scenes, like the unnecessary appearance of William (Mark Holgate,) a second suitor to Audrey, which serves little plot or comedic purpose.
Although it's frustrating to see many potentially funny moments not taken best advantage of, this is nevertheless a fascinating As You Like It; really digging into the darker side of the opening acts may not be my favourite approach, but having seen attempts fail before it's interesting to see it succeed here, with a take that highlights the danger of the court without killing the comedy in the process. Kelly, it has to be said, loved it, and as I tried to qualify at the beginning of this review my past experience of this play may raise my expectations unreasonably. I'd really like to see Aberg tackle a big tragedy next though - Waldmann and Nixon as the Macbeths in 2014 perhaps?
As You Like It by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 28th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; and from the 29th of October to the 2nd of November at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including interval.