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As You Like It at Manchester Royal Exchange

Published by: Caroline May on 6th Jul 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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Shakespeare’s cross-dressing pastoral comedy receives an inner-city update in Greg Hersov’s joyful production this summer. 

The usurping Duke Frederick has relocated his court to the Playboy mansion, where the dress code is formal evening wear and bunny-rabbit ears.  Superficially this is a world of liberty and licentiousness, but even champagne on tap can’t enliven the misery or distract from the air of menace and suppressed violence.  No wonder Frederick’s lively daughter Celia and melancholy niece Rosalind prefer to hide away in the chill-out lounge with its mellow tunes and low lights.  When Frederick finally snaps and exiles Rosalind there’s actually a sense of release and the promise of new-found freedom.

Designer Ashley Martin-Davis says his inspiration was the high-noon of hippydom, the Summer of Love; but with its acid-hues, status sneakers and skinny jeans the Forest of Arden looks more like mid-90s Madchester – all that’s missing is a big bomb going boom – though it happens that the forest is festooned with boom-boxes, as multi-coloured loudspeakers descend on wires from the gods.

Cush Jumbo is elegant and restrained as the Rosalind, but disguised as Ganymede she becomes a back-chatting, baseball-cap wearing, body-popping inner-city “blood”, with the accent and attitude to match.  Ganymede is part performance poet, part rapper, and the way this style of speech animates the language, the imagery, and the rhythms of the poetry, not to say the divided nature of Rosalind’s character, is an absolute revelation.  This has got to be the most inspired interpretation of a Shakespearean character since OT Fagbenle’s blaxploitation Mercutio for English Touring Theatre.

Arden’s other inhabitants are a selection box of soft centres and hard nuts.  James Clyde’s raddled ex-rock star Jaques looks every inch the former “libertine”; Gyuri Sarossy’s yuppy estate agent Oliver comes over very strongly as a nasty piece of work who wouldn’t scruple to redevelop the wild woodland into designer apartments; and Terence Wilton has a lovely cameo as a happy-clappy, bike-riding Sir Oliver Martext.

The musical interludes are beautiful, led by Howard Hutt’s melodious Amiens; he makes a fine impression with his verse speaking too, and would have been a vast improvement on Ben Batt’s uninspiring Orlando, whose gruff manner and blue shirt seem more suited to working on the tills at Tesco’s.

Above all, director Greg Hersov remembers that As You Like It is a comedy and gives us a bright, summery production that will raise the spirits.  As Ganymede might say: “Rispeck”.

As You Like It is on until Saturday 6 August 2011
Prices £9-£30
Evenings: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2.30
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
www.royalexchange.co.uk

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