William Shakespeare’s As You Like It has been given quite the makeover here at the Wyndhams Theatre in a new production. The action has been relocated to 1940s France which makes for a great visual aesthetic with the appropriate costumery and scenery (I loved the Parisian café), and a strong Gallic flavour to the music that permeates this entire production, with newly composed ballads by Tim Sutton livened by some onstage accordion action from Lisa-Lee Leslie.
A large ensemble play, it broadly speaks of redemption and resolution after conflict and suffering and is stuffed full of squabbling brothers, dukes, cross-dressing women, lovesick men and quadruple weddings in the Forest of Arden, falling under the pastoral comedy genre but with hints of darkness in there too which suit this post-WWII setting. But David Lan’s production has focused mainly on the burgeoning relationship between Rosalind and Orlando, desperate to be together but forced apart by her banishment from court.
Helen McCrory is one of those actresses that has crept up on me rather, having been brilliant in a number of things slightly below the radar (Charles II, The Jury) but leaving an indelible mark and a heightened sense of expectation in terms of being able to catch her onstage for the first time. Fortunately, she did not disappoint as a highly-strung but warmly passionate and engaging Rosalind. It really is a must-see performance and teamed up with Dominic West’s most handsome and charming Orlando, with whom the flirting scenes when Rosalind is disguised as Ganymede simply crackle with sexual chemistry, they provide a solid core of outstanding acting which atones for some of the other casting decisions.
Sienna Miller, garnerer of many a tabloid headline, does well as Celia although not making the hugest of impressions until a well-executed extended scene bringing some real meaning into her hurried fall into the arms of Oliver, but the populist approach to casting extends beyond Ms Miller into roping in two men better known as comedians into the ensemble: Sean Hughes and Reece Shearsmith. Hughes struggles with Touchstone but Shearsmith fares a better with his angry Jaques. It doesn’t help that every single double or indeed single entendre is crudely over-exaggerated, sadly giving the impression that the acting is not enough.
The music works well though, musical theatre actor Clive Rowe as Duke Senior fits in perfectly here, never missing an opportunity to throw in a song and there’s nice turns too from Nigel Richards and Andrew Woodall. Underpinned by a strong, intelligent performance by McCrory, ably assisted by the rugged West and a strong musicality, this unashamedly modern As You Like It eventually emerges as a refreshing take on this familiar tale albeit one which almost certainly would have survived without stunt casting.