In 2019, it is possible for Shakespeare’s comedies to fall flat. This is not the case for BTC’s production of As You Like It, which offers an audience two hours of much-needed escapism into the forest of Arden. Romantic mishaps and overly persistent men are more rife here than on a night out in Durham, a comic reminder of the continued relevance of Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience, and the perfect answer to your midterm slump.
The magic of the forest is recreated beautifully in Leech Hall, which has been transformed with garlands, trees, and a smoke machine. The hall is a large space, which the cast and production team fully exploit, at times using even the garden – all the world’s a stage, after all. It’s an active performance, with the cast rarely static; there is a wrestling scene, and suitors regularly sprint across the hall and outside in pursuit of reluctant women. Transitions between scenes are aided greatly by jaunty music and the slapstick action taking place in the gardens, making this a nearly seamless production.
The cast’s energy was one of their greatest strengths. They perform a classic play with new vigour, and their enthusiasm is catching. Rory Gee is polished and charming as Orlando, and Ruth Louis gives a standout performance as Rosalind. Both witty and endearingly awkward as she attempts to mask her true identity, Louis is almost faultless, and her confidence is vital to her success in the role.
Richard Dyer was perhaps the most entertaining member of the cast as Touchstone, though Theo Tobias and Harry Regan are also comic in their supporting roles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sam Richards gives an impressive performance as the melancholy Jacques, and his much-quoted monologue is one of the production’s most captivating scenes. No member of this cast disappoints, and it is clear that they have all worked tirelessly to deliver such a smooth and well-paced performance.
The theme of female solidarity is foregrounded in this production, owing largely to the chemistry between Louis and Francesca Chaplin, who plays Celia. Their portrayal of the friendship between the two women appears genuine, refreshing even today, when it is still not uncommon for the media to represent women as rivals. One does not have to struggle to find the relevance in other issues that the play addresses: gender and its various complexities, the ‘perfect utopia’ of the forest of Arden as a clear contrast to our current world in crisis, and Jacques’ more serious musings on mortality might all strike a cord with a student audience.
Byford’s production adheres to the original script, and does not (as is becoming the trend) attempt to over-exaggerate its more topical themes. This is not a weakness. While it’s not the most innovative approach to Shakespeare, it fulfils the play’s original purpose: to entertain. In a time when Jacques would no longer be in the minority with his cynicism, this is a welcome relief. Warm and feel-good, the audience is left smiling after the cast have taken their final bows. HBC’s production is well worth seeing, whether you’re a hardened Shakespeare enthusiast or have watched all of the rom-coms on Netflix and are just in need of a midterm pick-me-up.
Bailey Theatre Company’s As You Like It is on 15th-17th February at 7:30pm in Leech Hall, St John’s College.