Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Box Office 0844 800 1110

THE Forest of Arden, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is usually a fantastic place to escape or be banished to.

This is the RSC, so don’t expect a forest. Instead, the Forest of Arden is a theatre, also a fantastic place, but one of imagination and storytelling.

Antony Byrne plays the tyrannical Duke Frederick, but rather ingeniously also plays his brother Duke Senior, when we arrive in Arden and Duke Senior is clearly transformed in this world of make believe.

The lights rather brutally come up on the audience and the stage remains quite bare as we are forced to work our imaginations in order to transport ourselves to our own versions of Arden. Several audience members are even invited onto the stage to take part.

And then Kimberley Styles’ bold interpretation begins to make sense, as we hear the famous speech, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

And in this production, reality and make believe are also blurred and the RSC’s desire to make their shows more reflective of our society is manifested with changes to the genders and sexualities we would normally expect.

There is even a deaf BSL performer (Charlotte Arrowsmith) who plays Audrey. The music, costume and limited set are all a bit of a mish mash, but perhaps the thinking is to allow the audience to interpret Arden “as we like it”.

And then everything is thrown on its head for the finale, with a breathtakingly elaborate piece of design to represent Hymen, God of Marriage.

Despite the distractions of this rather confusing interpretation, the production is saved by a wonderful cast, most notably Lucy Phelps, whose performance as the lead character Rosalind, is mesmerising throughout.

7 out of 10

As You Like It runs in Stratford until August 31 2019 and then tours across the UK until April 4 2020.