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Review – As You Like It – Liverpool Playhouse

NORTHERN Broadsides’ tour of As You Like It hit national print and TV headlines when it played at York’s Theatre Royal, because an audience member walked out of the performance demanding a refund, offended by the Yorkshire accents used by some of the cast. Quelle surprise, a Halifax based theatre company performing Shakespeare with Yorkshire accents – in York.

It is such a ludicrous complaint that one might be forgiven for detecting a faint odour of publicity stunt lingering around the news articles, especially when this production has a great deal more to it that might rather more likely ruffle the feathers of a traditionalist.

Easily one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, As You Like It contains more than his usual quota of concealed identities and gender fluidity. Much has been made over the years of the notion that, with the all-male casts of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, the part of Rosalind/Ganymede would be taken by a male actor, playing the part of a woman, who disguises herself as a man, and of the homoerotic overtones that result from this. It is a piece that is absolutely demanding of the sort of thoughtful, inclusive casting that Broadsides have used here.

Although Adam Kashmiry almost tosses the words of Jacques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” speech away like as many autumn leaves, Director Laurie Sansom makes heavy-duty mileage of the notion that one man in his time plays many parts. E.M. Parry’s set design gives the impression of an explosion in a costume store, and the proliferation of styles and colour that adorn the stage extends to the garments for the cast, accentuating the near-erasure of gender identity from their roles.

EM Williams gives us a stunningly well considered portrayal of Rosalind that is direct, powerful and totally engaging. They own the stage whenever they are present, but deserves to be surrounded by a production that tries harder to match their performance in either conviction or clarity.

This is a reading of the play that is absolutely full of great ideas, and this is possibly its downfall. Too many of these ideas seem to be competing with each other for attention, and in the end there is little narrative focus and the show lacks a pulse.

That said, there are a great many things to like about it, mostly in the individual performances. Joe Morrow’s Touchstone draws on his experience as a cabaret artist, and in many ways conjures memories of Kate O’Donnell’s Feste in the Royal Exchange’s 2017 Twelfth Night, in the way that the character engages directly with the audience. Isobel Coward’s Celia and Gemma Dobson’s Phoebe are compelling too, and Jo Patmore’s vocals and guitar playing as Amiens are a real treat.

You might subtitle this rendering ‘A Comedy of Coat Stands’ or ‘Four Weddings and a Maypole’ with its forest of bentwood coat stands; particularly effective in the woodland scene when they are festooned with love notes, and doubling as everything from a goat pen to the centrepiece for the multi-matrimonial climax.

There are a lot of highlights in this affectionate, funny and thought provoking production. It is frequently entertaining, and carries some important messages about casting but somehow, despite the beauty of many of its individual parts, the sum of them fail to add up, and the piece feels like a cloud of charged particles in search of a nucleus.

Star rating – 3 stars

Review by Nigel Smith


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