“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad”
For regular theatregoers, it can sometimes feel a bit hard to get excited about the umpteenth production of a play, so much so that I almost didn’t see the winning combination of the much-loved Blanche McIntyre and Michelle Terry until the very end of their run at the Globe this summer. So the news that Polly Findlay was also tackling As You Like It for the National was tempered a little (though it is the first time in 30 years it has played there) but as Rosalind was announced (Rosalie Craig poached from the cast of wonder.land to replace an indisposed Andrea Riseborough), the excitement began to build and the inevitable ticket was purchased and boy am I glad that I did.
For the transformation of the set into the Forest of Arden is a moment of genuinely breath-taking theatre, Lizzie Clachan pulling the rug from under us and her design to create a most singular vision. And it is one in which enchantment slowly grows with sylvan sound effects created by company members onstage and a choir singing Orlando Gough’s contemporary and complex score (akin if alike to the one he composed for Bakkhai). There’s a lovely conceit in which Alan Williams’ Corins, nominally a shepherd but here more like a forest deity, summons the music every time love is needed to cast its spell, enhancing the magical feel.
Which is all the more impressive given where we start. Duke Frederick’s court is transposed to a corporate bullpen full of trader types, his duchy a bustling business empire (with wrestling amusingly posed as a 5pm distraction) from whence Rosalind and Patsy Ferran’s Celia are duly banished, but not before the former has tumbled head over heels for the equally tongue-tied Orlando, a marvellously puppyish Joe Bannister. And once all are in the forest, the transformative power of love takes hold as Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede in order to test Orlando’s mettle and Craig and Bannister’s excellent chemistry takes flight.
Findlay also keeps a keen sense of comedy percolating through the show through novel innovations – headbutts, personal rainclouds, those sheep! even if Mark Benton doesn’t quite do enough with Touchstone to actually make him funny. Paul Chahidi’s Jacques has his melancholy well strummed by Fra Fee’s sonorous Amiens and Ferran is good as Celia, if a little too reliant on comedy faces. And if the special effect that accompanies the beginning of the epilogue owes a heavy debt to Derek Bond’s 2014 production for Southwark Playhouse, its exquisite timing more than compensates, a final flourish of magic to accompany a gorgeous production suffused with music, love and warmth.