Theatre review: As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


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This revival begins in a sombre mood with the thrust stage covered in crunchy desiccated leaves which a bleak Orlando, in servitude to his abusive older brother, and the loyal ancient Adam (beautifully played by David Fielder) have been tasked to sweep into a wheelbarrow.

Three and a quarter hours later, it ends with the mother of all folky, Glastonbury-esque hootenannies. And in between, Maria Aberg's production establishes itself as the funniest, most stirringly joyous - and truly ensemble – take on this lovely but tricky comedy since the all-male Cheek By Jowl version over twenty years ago.  

I feel a bit sheepish (if I may use that word in the context of so pastoral a play) about making this declaration because I am the critic who singled out Aberg's modern-dress RSC revival of Shakespeare's King John as my Turkey of 2012. Many of the current cast – including the two leads, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldman, who are absolutely glorious here in the way they play cross-dressed, liminal libidinousness of the mock-wooing game between Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando – were also in the history play. 

Any inconsistency of judgement, though, is more apparent than real for You Like invites those creative directorial impulses from Aberg that felt to me footlingly imposed on King John. There's a terrific, headlong generosity of spirit here to the gender-bending and to the disciplined anarchy with which contradictory tones are despatched on revelatory collision courses. 

The director is Swedish and there's a Scandinavian feel to the design in which the trees in the Forest of Arden are tall thin columns of wooden planks that twirl on large revolves, while the Court in Exile, who here double as an ace band sport some very snazzy Nordic knitwear. 

The hot folk singer-song writer Laura Marling has composed a score that hauntingly adds to and embellishes the songs in the play, as when Orlando struggles his way into delirious nonsense while trying to find rhymes for “Rosalind” with a short “i” and vainly juggling accordion and manuscripts hits on the idea of posting his verses on the tree trunks. Aided by a fantastic Grock-meets-Grosz Touchstone from the unfailingly superb Nicolas Tennant and Oliver Ryan's peculiar but very funny take on Jaques as a Welsh obsessive, enraptured only with the idea of the rural, Pippa Nixon (wonderfully convincing as wiry pipe-cleaner “Ganymede”) and Waldman bring home how the leads are soulmates and as giddily heaving with hormones as a field is hummingly suffused with pollen in high summer. Warmly  recommended.  

To 28 September; 0844 800 1110