“As You Like It”, Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedy is on all this week at the Richmond Theatre, in a highly innovative and brilliant production by the Shared Experience Theatre Company. The Director Kate Saxon has come with a version of “As You Like It” for Britain as it is now in 2017.

The contrast between the Westminster Village and the people left behind is cleverly referenced by the contrast between the Royal Court of Duke Frederick and the Forest of Arden – think Sherwood Forest and the Glastonbury Festival. This contrast between the Court and the Country is set up for us in Libby Watsons stunning stage design. For the first scene a black wall takes up most of the stage barely leaving room for the actors to perform. This creates the sense of claustrophobia and menace that is Duke Fredericks royal Court. But when the action moves in the second act to the Forest of Arden the black wall is pushed aside to reveal a magical world of freedom and vitality. In the centre of which is one large tree which stands for all the trees of Arden. It’s brilliant we know where in the Forest so one tree is enough to stand for the rest. And what a tree. A trunk leads up to several branches that create horizontal’s that not only frame the set but also enable the cast to climb and lounge. To add to the magic, the tree has been wrapped in sticky tape so that it shimmers in the various lights that bounce off it throughout the production. The streams and brooks of Arden are evoked by sound and made visual by the water dispenser. It is clever analogies like this stream/water dispenser that give this production such a wonderful sense of seeing Shakespeare afresh. And this is vitally important because unless we make the Bard come alive for us now in 2017 then it’s for the birds and the tourists but not us. I for one want Shakespeare to live and speak to us and so welcome with open arms what Shared Experience have the courage to do. So hats off to Kate Saxon and Libby Watson. This production of “As You Like It” will, I’m sure, not only re-create the play for our time but also introduce a new audience to Shakespeare. Surely there is no more important task facing us as a civilisation than that of introducing new audiences to gems of world culture?

There is much to enjoy in this production. Jessica Hayles is wonderful as Rosalind. She is especially compelling playing the part of a man pretending to be Rosalind. And in the scenes where she intoxicated by love she is mesmerising. Layo-Christina Akinlude, gives a master class in comic acting as her cousin Celia. Nathan Hamilton as the usurped younger son Orlando, provides a perfect Prince charming for Rosalind to fall in love with. And James Sheldon as Jaques delivers one of the most famous speeches in all drama to perfection. I mean of course the “Seven ages of Man” speech which starts “All the worlds a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts. His acts being seven ages …” The rest of the cast each play several parts.

Appropriately for “As You Like It’. Sweet are the uses of adversity. The virtuosity is astonishing. The speed of costume change remarkable. Matthew Mellalieu plays four parts but it is as Touchsone that he caught my eye. Fool to Duke Frederick he speaks truth to power and gives comic energy to every scene he graces. A wonderful piece of acting. The dance he performs with Audrey (Matthew Darcy) is side splittingly funny.

Jaques ends his famous speech with the Seventh age of Man “ … Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Well before we get to that stage, we can enjoy what life has to offer and there is no more rewarding and invigorating joy than “As You Like It.”

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