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September 2013

As You Like It - review

Margaret Pritchard Houston

ike many of Shakespeare’s comedies, As You Like It has a dark side. As it begins, we are in a world of court politics, slick City suits and sunglass-wearing bodyguards. Two family dramas are at the centre of this – the de Bois family and the family of the Duke. Sir Rowland de Bois has recently died, and his eldest son Oliver (Moray Jones, in a welcome return to acting) has inherited the vast majority of his estate. But despite his father’s instructions to look after his brother Orlando (Nicolas Holzapfel), Oliver has refused him his education and privileges. In the Duke’s family, the rightful ruler Duke Senior (David Gardner) has been usurped by his brother Duke Frederick (Jon Waters). He has fled to the forest with his loyal courtiers, and is soon joined in exile by his daughter Rosalind (Emma Lyndon-Stanford), dressed as a boy, and her cousin Celia (Sarah Day). The conceit used to make this happen is a wrestling match whose participants are manipulated by the various villains, and credit must be given to Simon May and Nicolas Holzapfel, as well as director Jane Mayfield, for the well-choreographed fight scene.

Shakespeare’s forests are mythical places, away from the realpolitik of the court, where all the tangled loyalties are sorted out, true lovers are brought together, and all are ultimately revealed for who they really are. In Mayfield’s production, this transition is shown by leaving behind the modern dress of the court and taking on a more romantic, pre-Raphaelite appearance. The pastoral feel is enhanced by several wonderful musical pieces, featuring Sarah Day, Emma Lyndon-Stanford, Jo Bohling, Cristina Bancora, and Andy Grieves. Real trees bend over the groups of lovers and courtiers as they flit in and out of the forest, solving the complex web of love and loyalty. An elegant cameo by Nim Johnson as Hymen, god of marriage, also helped create that sense of myth and otherworldliness, as did the lighting by Harlequin.

At the heart of the play is the character of Rosalind, played with a combination of innocence and experience by Emma Lyndon-Stanford, slipping effortlessly between girlish excitement and womanly wiles. Sarah Day, as Celia, had the difficult task of being onstage for all of this, without much to say – her reactions and body language were priceless, providing an excellent comic foil to the romance at the centre of the show. Nick Holzapfel, meanwhile, also had an unenviable difficulty – that of being that stock Shakespearean character who magically doesn’t recognize their beloved when they’re wearing different clothes. Despite this, he made the role very believable, movingly showing us the ups and downs of uncertain young love, his quest to get the girl assisted by Simon Malpas in fine form as his loyal servant.

But with four pairs of lovers, As You Like It is a true ensemble piece. This production was filled with wonderful character turns, from Jolyon Bohling’s blinged-out Le Beau, complete with fur coat and looking ready to audition for Geordie Shore, to Sarah Holland’s not-so-innocently flirtatious Audrey. Matt Williams imbued Touchstone with an incredible vigour and life (the relationship between him and his puppet is a love story to rival any of the others in the play), while Stephen Clarke and Stefano Campodifiori showed versatility in a variety of roles.

In the exiled court, David Gardner played the frustrated elder statesman – caught between wanting his rightful throne and being thoroughly fed up with politics – with his usual confidence, and Renae Soni gave Jaques a touch of the witty bluestocking. The Duke’s court, particularly Judy Burgess, were moving in their loyalty to the exiled Duke.

Of course, no pastoral comedy is complete without a few bumbling rural types, and this was ably achieved through Malcolm Stern’s Corin, and the feuding shepherd and shepherdess Silvius and Phoebe. Jolyon Bohling made the most of Silvius, and Mary Clare was hilarious as the vapid bimbo Phoebe.

The villains (both of whom eventually reform – this is, after all, a comedy) were played well, with Moray Jones giving Oliver a smarmy, supercilious air, and Jon Waters playing Duke Frederick as cold and power-hungry.

But more notable than any individual performance was the sense of camaraderie that pervaded the crowd scenes – Duke Senior’s courtiers, the trio of Rosalind and Celia and Touchstone – a camaraderie that well reflects the best elements of the Hampstead Players themselves.

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