As You Like It, Olivier Theatre, review: Orlando Gough's music brings a wild celebration to a terrific evening

It's hilarious – as is Joe Bannister's enchanting performance as Orlando

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 04 November 2015 14:11 GMT
(Johan Persson)

Rosalie Craig was last seen at the National Theatre levitating surreally as a defence against the risky gravity of falling in love, as the title character Tori Amos's much-underrated musical The Light Princess. Now she's back, in piquant contrast:“fathom love” as Rosalind the Shakespearean heroine who woos her man and educates him about justly-based gender relations while in male disguise. Polly Findlay stages this pastoral comedy in the Olivier in a modern-dress production which, by the end, has stacked up the undeniable right to be hailed as reelingly joyous.

The first movement of the play —set in the Bad Duke's court, before the play migrates to the Banished Duke's court-in-exile in the Forest of Arden – does not to my mind bode well. The repressive regime is epitomised by the control-freak computerised HQ from Hell with paper-shredders, minutely regimented lunch breaks and, a bit inexplicably, the mats and equipment to stage a full-on wrestling match. I took on a small bet with myself that the desks, chairs and lamps were bits-of-trees-in-waiting for the into-the-woods transformation. But even if this was a bit predictable, it 's still magical to see the metamorphosis. In Lizzie Clachan's ace design, t's as as though all the stock in a bursting Ryman's warehouse were to be hoisted high into the air and then upended – the sylvan world as a dangly stationery emporium.

Rosalie Craig (Rosalind), Joe Bannister (Orlando) As You Like It. (Johan Persson)

I feel chary about admitting this but I was not entirely smitten by Craig's Rosalind. She's wonderfully witty and captures well the heroine's show of amused control and reality-check cynicism in the try-out wooing scenes that widen Orlando's emotional horizons. But the sense that, underneath, she is in a giddy rapture of love and that there is real pathos in the dissimulation – a feature that Victoria Hamilton signalled heart-stoppingly in Michael Grandage's take on the play – feels signalled here rather than fully felt in a performance that struck me as too controlled and briskly managed.

The entire experience, though, is irradiated by the director's delectably mischievous recognition that, in romantic pastoral, the natural world is not in any way heading towards a Ted Hughes-like rendering of it, imagined at it feels to itself. It's an allegory that always reflects back human preoccupations (“books in running brooks, sermons in stones”) As You Like It plays lovely self-aware games with this and so does the production. The company, suspended in the trees, conjure up a deth of wing-flapping birds, or, in cream woollies, the flocks of sheep that here have a starring role – other-cheek-to-other-cheek meek and stupidly collegiate. One of them munches through one of Orlando's poems to Rosalind in a manner that brilliantly combines the absent-minded and the seemingly bloody-minded.

It's hilarious – as is Joe Bannister's enchanting performance as Orlando, a good-catch, beautifully ill-at-ease (imagine ridiculously would-be assertive legs) because of emotional abuse from the wicked side of the family and from Patsy Ferran as sidekick cousin in a Peter Pan collar, saucer eyed with mixed feelings about consorting with men. Orlando Gough's music brings haunting sadness and wild celebration to a terrific evening.

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