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As You Like It – Barons Court Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Mackenzie Thorpe

Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

[rating:4]

As You Like It - Barons Court, LondonThe black-painted brick walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling of a tiny pub cellar in west London are an unlikely substitute for either the court or a forest, and yet the meagre set design — a solitary log and a combover of a few wisps of greenery — belies the resources available to Green Girl Productions in their interpretation of this Shakespearean classic. A large cast of eleven is still not enough for a play that has twenty-one named parts, and since there are few cuts several of the actors have to double and even treble up. The versatility of the ensemble is apparent in the range of characters created, but this comedy of love also demands a strong female lead: Nicola Foxfield generates an abundance of warmth and wit, and combines these qualities with an admirable wilfulness to produce a perfect Rosalind.

A 16th-century fictional Forest of Arden becomes a 20th Century Ardenne, just after World War II. The stress on the second syllable is one clue to the Francophile setting. More telling is the way this version is infused with the spirit of those French women who had been in the resistance and risked their lives alongside their brothers and fathers and sons. In their blog on gender equal casting, the company also explain their decision to switch the sex of some of the characters, namely, Amiens, Monsieur Le Beau (who becomes Mam’zelle Le Beau) and the middle brother Jacques (who becomes Orlando’s elder sister, Jaqueline). These changes are unobtrusive, and indeed entirely in keeping in a play whose central character is a cross-dressing young woman and with an early scene in which the brute masculine force of Charles the wrestler is vanquished.

The male parts that are left over after this gender reassignment are far from left dangling, however, and Nick Farr’s Orlando rises to the challenge of being a worthy object of Rosalind’s rather sudden affection. At first, as she tries to discourage him from the match and then eggs him on with a friendly slap on his arm, it seems little more than girlish infatuation. And then, victorious and yet wordless, he gazes at her while she grins at him, the inanity of their social awkwardness made utterly irrelevant by the momentary emotional connection at the heart of this love story.

Not knowing what to say is not typical of Rosalind, of course. For example, she bravely stands up to her uncle to defend her own reputation and that of her father, and delivers the line — “My father was no traitor!” — with tremendous power and control. Alone with Celia, we have just seen her unpinning her long blond hair, and so her invention of Ganymede — hair cropped short and hidden under a flat cap, figure-hugging red dress replaced by trousers and waistcoat — is all the more impressive, as is her/his subsequent transformation into a pretend Rosalind who, in jest and in all seriousness, woos Orlando.

There’s so much to enjoy in a show that runs for a little over two hours (with an interval), and although there are some weaker performances (relatively speaking) it’s always a good sign when the smaller rôles also shine. Maryanne Hedges, for example, reveals a beautiful singing voice as Amiens and then produces a wonderfully gurning Audrey, the object of Touchstone’s lascivious marital attentions. The director gets to throw his (considerable) weight around as a Gallically moustachioed Charles and is barely contained within a holey jumper as the melancholic Jacques.

Touchstone’s right when he says there’s much virtue in that little word “if”: pretending to be someone else in order to find one’s true self is one of the themes of this play, and perhaps the whole point of theatre. This production remains faithful to this theme, and delights to show us just how pretend can produce truth in performance.

Runs until 26th January

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