Review: As You Like It, Royal Exchange

“Were it not better…that I did suit me all points like a man”

As You Like It is one of those Shakespeare plays that seems to pop up most regularly at the moment, so much so that its mere mention makes my heart sink a little. I quite like the play but it is not one of my favourites and so had been intending to give the many productions appearing all over the show a miss this year. The best intentions etc etc no willpower blah blah meant that I couldn’t resist popping into the Royal Exchange to take in this modern-dress version.

Chief of my reasons was the casting of Cush Jumbo as Rosalind: she was a highlight in the Pygmalion I saw at the same venue last year and I suspect she is an actress destined for big things. She is excellent here, at her best when disguised as a street-smart Ganymede, peppering her lines with hip-hop slang and becoming terrifyingly convincing as an awkward teenage boy. A terrific performance and definitely one to watch.

In a minimal staging, only loudspeakers that are lowered from on high make a real impression, sound being a large part of Greg Hersov. The updating of the story is a canny move given the energy that is pulsing through the Manchester International Festival in the city around them here, and it has its moments. The speakers take the place of trees in the Forest of Arden, both physically and aurally, Orlando uses them to broadcast his messages rather than posting notes to them.

A strong set of supporting performances helped things immeasurably during the longueurs: Terence Wilton’s pair of Dukes; Kelly Hotten’s perceptive and wryly amusing Celia; Ian Bartholomew a Touchstone just about on the right side of not annoying (no mean feat); James Clyde’s Jacques, here a grizzled ageing rocker; Zora Bishop’s PJ Harvey-tshirted Phoebe; and interestingly, William Postlethwaite following in his late father’s footsteps with his debut here as Silvius.

At just over three hours, this production does often feel punishingly long, especially in the first half where there’s a fair amount of confusion as the treatment doesn’t really explain the machinations of the court and there’s precious little comedy in the entire first half, indeed little to raise it from being dull. But in its good moments – the male harmony singing, Jumbo’s sensational performance and a delightful supporting cast – there is a fair bit to savour here too.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 6th August

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