As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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In The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode identifies the forest in Shakespeare as an inherently liminal space. It’s an area where identities blur, gender becomes fluid and appearances deceive; the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off. In an age of concrete jungles, director Maria Aberg has looked around for the equivalent contemporary space for her modern Forest of Arden and landed upon the inspired setting of the festival. In this context – usually with the aid of a few illicit substances – inhibitions drop away, social rules are bent and the real world is momentarily distant. And so it is in Aberg’s joyously liberated As You Like It.

This Forest of Arden is both transporting and transformational. Leaving behind the stylised monochrome claustrophobia of the court, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting and presided over by a particularly thuggish Duke Frederick, the transition into the woods is almost a Wizard of Oz moment – a sudden blooming into technicolour. Upon contact with the forest and its merry band of hippies, led by an ageing rocker of an exiled duke, characters experience a sudden, disorientating shift. By establishing this transformational space, Aberg effortlessly navigates some of Shakespeare’s more abrupt plot swerves; here, anything can happen. The only thing that’s hard to believe is why the characters would ever want to leave this woodland paradise.

By offering us Shakespeare’s play in all its untrimmed, anarchic glory, Aberg’s version (running at over three hours but feeling more like one) allows the Forest of Arden to make a strange sort of sense through its stubborn refusal to follow logic. Characters fall in love at first sight or shed personality traits like winter coats, in a plot full of swift handbrake turns. This slippery structure can prove problematic for interpreters, many of whom snip away at the more preposterous elements of the narrative, but Aberg’s approach makes one suspect that those heavily edited productions are sort of missing the point. Arden, this production convinces us, is not meant to make sense. It provides a magical, freeing contrast with the restrictions of the court, its power such that it can remould personalities within moments.

While more extreme reversals occur elsewhere, Pippa Nixon’s captivating Rosalind provides perhaps the most compelling example of the force exerted by the forest’s intoxicating freedom. In court, a gloomy and sinister space succinctly captured in Ayse Tashkiran’s brilliantly unsettling choreography, the exiled duke’s daughter is forced into a role as restrictive as her floor-length black dress – which even in this dark environment has an irrepressible sparkle akin to that of its wearer. In Rosalind’s early scenes and her first encounter with Alex Waldmann’s petulant, hoodie-wearing Orlando, Nixon keeps the character tentative, reined in despite her clear passion. It’s only in the Forest of Arden, where evening wear is exchanged for jeans and bare feet, that she is exhilaratingly freed and her immediate crush for Orlando is allowed to blossom into dizzying, mind-altering love.

Every last element of the production is harnessed to create this sense of giddy liberation that occurs as soon as the characters step through the trees. The wooden frame of Naomi Dawson’s beautifully simple set design initially shuts out the light, fiercely boarding up the court from the natural world outside, before a stunning transformation brings us amid the trees and earth of the forest. James Farncombe’s lighting makes an equally dramatic transition from the stark and anaemic confines of civilization to the warm glow of the wild, while the performers rapidly shed starched suits and rigidly inherited roles. And then there’s the music. Laura Marling’s murderously catchy soundtrack crashes together the folk traditions of an ancient rural England and the messy euphoria of the modern day music festival – two things which, according to Aberg, aren’t all that different. (“I have a hunch that the rural English rituals that are now long forgotten fulfil the same kind of need that we satisfy when we go to Glastonbury,” she says. “I think on some profound level those things are connected”)

While the play is every inch Rosalind’s (and, in this production, Nixon’s), right up to the playfully delivered epilogue, the tangle of interweaving plots offers plenty of work for a strong ensemble. It’s a joy to see Nicolas Tennant on stage again after Three Kingdoms, here embracing another kind of anarchy with his wryly shambolic take on Touchstone and even briefly breaking out of the text to deliver a bit of deadpan stand-up. Waldmann’s initially sulky Orlando offers another dazzling transformation, moving through vain posturing and wide-eyed bemusement before arriving at a true appreciation of Rosalind, while he and Nixon have fizzling chemistry from the off. There’s also impressive support from Oliver Ryan’s other-worldly Jacques and a scene-stealing moment of tenderness from David Fielder as faithful servant Adam.

Yet there remains, for all the sheer joy, a hint of darkness. The frenzied pitch of emotion feels unsustainable, a high that has to be followed by a crashing low – maybe upon return to the court, which this production establishes as a particularly unappealing reality. Given the clear reference point of the festival, it’s tempting to see such events as similar escapes from a bleak and hostile world, hinting at the efforts of a disillusioned generation to ignore the injustice of their society through a haze of drink, drugs and music. I’m not sure this social critique is quite as prominently foregrounded as Matt Trueman credits it with being, but perhaps that’s just because my experience of the production was helplessly dominated by the infectious fun of the closing scenes, to which I found myself willingly surrendering. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the blissful abandon of the festival, but it was tough to resist the urge to leap around on stage with the cast by the end.

At its fiercely beating heart, As You Like It is really about falling in love, and this version offers us a Rosalind and an Arden to tumble head over heels for. Aberg’s chaotic production might not offer us any answers beyond the space of this ecstatic, muddy celebration, but that’s the essence of the forest. It’s a magical place apart, full of gorgeous anarchy, but – just like the festival – it is essentially a transitory state. While the music lasts, however, it’s impossible to do anything but dance.

Photo: Keith Pattison.

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