Following last week's Julius Caesar, the Royal Shakespeare Company now presents Shakespeare's As You Like It. It's one of the Bard's comedies that ticks several Elizabethan mirth-making boxes; love at first sight, cross dressing, plain-speaking fools and flirty freedom when courtly townspeople head out to the countryside.
In Michael Boyd's assured production, the sometimes straightforwardly upbeat comedy of As You Like It gains depth and an interesting layer of darkness. The court of the new Duke Frederick contains real menace; following the flight of her mistresses Celia and Rosalind, their maid meets the Duke, under guard, with a bloody wound on her head. Hints at torture and a very real promise of death to our heroine Rosalind up the stakes and, of course, make the contrast with the later reconciliation all the more satisfying.
In exile, Duke Ferdinand and his Robin Hood-like band of men are suffering real hardship. It's snowing, and bloody cold. Time and again, the references to near-starvation and the extreme poverty of the shepherds remind us that it's not all dressing up as boys and writing love poetry in this Forest of Arden. You can kind of see why the melancholic Jaques (played by Forbes Masson looking like Tim Minchin with his funny bone taken out) likes it.
But against all this heaviness and snow, we still have two girls sunny and savvy enough to take a Fool with them when they run away. Katy Stephens' Rosalind invests this peach of a part with great charisma. It's easy to see why Orlando is enthralled both by the woman, and her creation, Ganymede. Unlike some actresses playing-the-girl playing-the-guy, Stephens refrains from making Ganymede 'too good'; the audience remain aware, throughout, of the comic potential lying just beneath the surface of her role playing.
It's just one great performance of many. It feels almost clichéd to praise the ensemble work of the RSC these days but in this production, the company's incredible consistency should not be overlooked. As You Like It is chock full of characters, and Michael Boyd's show pulls out the best of them all. It feels like every movement and each line has been finely crafted. Richard Katz's Touchstone is magnificently manic; there's irresistible physical comedy from Audrey (Sophie Russell); and Forbes Masson delivers his seven ages of man speech like a masterclass, entirely inhabiting each age within the bare text.
Boyd has created an As You Like It with more depth and darkness than most productions strive to find. The result is an extremely satisfying mix of the serious and silly: go see.
As You Like It plays at the Roundhouse until 5 February. Tickets are £8-40. It is part of a season of RSC productions at the venue. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/london for more information.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz shows Katy Stephens as Rosalind (as Ganymede)