The Royal Shakespeare Company's new Rosalind, Katy Stephens, points out in the programme that her job is "not to be great" but to tell a love story, "together with everyone involved". To some extent, she succeeds. But an audience's job in this play is to fall in love with Rosalind, and I'm not sure that we do.
Stephens had a great season in Michael Boyd's cycle of the History Plays and playing Rosalind is a just reward. But having moved us with her bravado she doesn't slay us with her falling in love; and, most strangely of all, she doesn't deliver the reciprocal epilogue, perhaps believing her own counsel that good wine needs no bush.
She and her cousin Celia, played with a touching circumspection by Mariah Gale, first appear in the cruel court of Duke Frederick (a lip-curling Sandy Neilson) dressed in black like the rival queens in Schiller's Mary Stuart.
But after the wrestling match and the thunderclap encounter with Jonjo O'Neill's better-than-average Orlando, she embraces banishment with a spirited adoption of her sexuality, donning male attire as "Ganymede" with a swagger and even a moustache. Not only is this play a masterful, intriguing clash of styles and manners, it's also a complex study in attitudes of love.
You feel the whole comedy stems from this unleashing of Rosalind's inner gaiety and emotional resourcefulness. Delightful though Stephens is in many scenes – the seduction where she entices Orlando "in a holiday humour" to pretend she's a girl, even though he's enchanted by her boyishness, is beautifully done – Boyd's production keeps slapping her down. It is almost emphatically coarse and austere.
The scenic backdrop to the bare thrust stage in Tom Piper's design is a white-painted raffia wall in which windows open like those on an advent calendar, giving glimpses of the forest pushing through the bloodless court. Richard Katz's immensely likeable Touchstone – shorn of many jokes rightly deemed incomprehensible – rolls on in a mobile haystack to announce his arrival in the country.
Boyd plays up "the winter and rough weather" side of things. The second act opens with Geoffrey Freshwater's grumpy old shepherd, Corin, skinning a rabbit with the dexterity of a master butcher. And Forbes Masson lends the melancholy Jaques a blue-nosed, ethereal quality that makes him seem like a haunted relic from another planet.
Masson sings the songs that usually belong to Amiens, so that his claim to be able to suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs describes his artistry, not his response to art in others. It's a brilliant stroke, only partly undermined by an over-mimed delivery of the "seven ages of man" speech. The fantastic scenes of the deer hunt and the masque representing Hymen, goddess of marriage, are rooted in rustic realism and the psychology of the characters; strangeness is on hold. As a result, the play never soars, even though it's very well laid out and the story, as Stephens had hoped, is well told.
To 3 October (0844 800 1110; www.rsc.org.uk)
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