Review: Cheek By Jowl’s As You Like It, screening at Noël Coward Theatre

“One man in his time plays many parts”

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of this particular production and the launch of The Sophie Hamilton Archive which chronicles over 30 years of their work, getting to attend a screening of Cheek By Jowl’s As You Like It was a fabulous way to spend a Sunday evening. Shown in the very Noël Coward Theatre (or Albery as was) where it was recorded, the event was made extra special by the attendance of the entire revival cast who proudly took their bows onstage at the end, in front of the film of them taking their bows on that same stage – a lovely moment.

Declan Donnellan’s original production dates back to 1991 and as pointed out by one of the speakers tonight, its cross-gender and colour-blind casting made and still makes it a most transformative piece of theatre and one with great foresight (even if sadly, messages about women taking on male roles still haven’t quite sunk in) in a pre-Propeller, Section 28-pasing age. What emerges as most pleasing is the utter lack of gimmick with no overarching conceit to justify the decisions here, starting simply with a troupe of identically dressed actors and the desire to tell a story.

That they do so superbly that the three hours rushed by too quickly. Simon Coates’ brilliantly withering Celia, Rhashan Stone’s impossibly sweet-voiced Amiens, Wayne Cater’s vivid handbag-wielding Phebe, Peter Needham’s old-school clown Touchstone, Michael Gardiner’s striking Jacques, the character work here is impeccable from top to bottom as the world of the Forest of Arden is evoked through nothing more than tumbling ribbons of green silk in Nick Ormerod’s design and yet has rarely felt a woodland glade in which anything could happen.

As great as the production is, Adrian Lester is a genuine revelation as Rosalind though, with the kind of performance that makes you see a character completely anew, no matter how many As You Like Its you may have seen. Wonderfully witty and strikingly self-possessed, one was left in no doubt as to the all-conquering power of love to completely change one’s world, the giddy glee at the realisation of Scott Handy’s Orlando’s true intentions delicious in its carefree joy, the passionate power as their emotions intensify leading to one of the most erotic stage kisses I think I’ve ever seen.

That finale with its tango routine was just transcendental (and may well have ruined any post-show jig from now on) and made a fitting end to a cracking bit of Shakespeare which I am so pleased to have been able to see. And the announcement of The Sophie Hamilton Archive will thus clearly have a substantial part to play in ensuring that this and other past performances by this iconic company will continue to be celebrated as a range of materials is hosted at and will constantly added to.

The cast taking their bow onstage

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