The usurping Duke Frederick’s court is a surveillance state in director Polly Findlay’s new production of Shakespeare’s comedy. The colourful but cumbersome office setting thankfully disappears when our heroines, Rosalind and Celia, escape the city – chairs and desks ascend, transforming into the Forest of Arden. Lizzie Clachan’s Cornelia-Parker-inspired vision is a breath-taking use of the Olivier auditorium – a design to applaud.
The forest, brilliantly lit by Jon Clark, is sinister and cold, but romance is at the heart of the show, ensured by strong performances from the young cast. Rosalie Craig is captivating as Rosalind, with an immaculate transformation into her disguise as a man, while Joe Bannister matches her in appeal as a boyish, modern Orlando. Patsy Ferran makes a strong Celia and the two women’s relationship is satisfyingly explored. All three leads are on top of Shakespeare’s comedy, making this a production of big laughs rather than the usual small smiles. Joining in, Gemma Lawrence is an energetic Phebe, Mark Benton a convivial Touchstone and there’s a superb cameo by Siobhán McSweeney as his love interest, Audrey.
Findlay has no shortage of ideas. A choir fills the forest with music and bold sound effects; Orlando Gough’s score buoys the whole show. A scene where the vast cast perform as sheep in Arran jumpers is memorable – flirting fills the flock, too. The “shade of melancholy boughs” the forest casts is probed with style but unfortunately this leaves Paul Chahidi’s Jacques making less of impact. There is also a big problem in the production’s notable lack of tension. Some suspense is sacrificed for laughs (that Orlando’s wrestling match is a Mexican one means he is never in danger) while both Dukes suffer from roles that feel truncated and a little flat. Findlay’s forest looks great and her take on the play is fresh, but journeying into these woods isn’t as interesting as it should be.
Until 5 March 2016
Photo by Johan Persson