This age-blind production of giddy “young” lovers lost in Shakespeare’s pastoral idyll pulls the rug from under us in more ways than one. Rosalind (Geraldine James) and Orlando (Malcolm Sinclair) speak of their youth and perform its romantic enchantments but represent an autumnal kind of love as well. We do not see much of Arden, to which they are banished, either, because the drama emphatically undercuts the theatrical illusions so central to the forest’s magic.
Much of it makes for warm, charming comedy with the most bewitching of casts who perform the verse with great fluidity, although the pace revs up too slowly despite a trimming of the text.
This ensemble, we are told, first performed the play back in 1978. Now they have reconvened though they are a few actors down: one, who has “passed on”, is represented, respectfully, by an overcoat on stage.
“All the world’s a stage,” the play tells us, but in an inventive twist, Omar Elerian directs a production in which the machinery of the stage becomes the play’s world. A rehearsal room (designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) serves as the set with a large piece of rigging lowering a band from the ceiling in one surprise turn. The lighting fixtures are lowered too to become seats for characters while a crew assisting with line prompts is visible, scripts in hand, and they pose as trees or logs after Rosalind and Celia are banished to Arden.
It is all very clever – perhaps too clever – with age blindness used to explore the theme of memory but the metafictive nature of the play slightly overpowering its exploration.
There is awkward laughter around age: the fight scenes are deliberately creaky and the forgeting of lines is played for laughs. Some subtle clowning elements are wonderful such as a spot-lit dance by Touchstone (James Hayes) and yokel, William (Ewart James Walters). Touchstone’s arch asides are another highlight and he looks slightly like Stan Laurel in his comic moments.
But some of the metafiction feels too self-consciously cutesy and there are a few strained digressions, including one on Christopher Marlowe’s death.
What is never played for laughs is the central romance, which is performed brilliantly. James, at 72, captures the innocent excitement of first love while Sinclair is utterly lovable as Orlando, full of charmingly comic tics but earnest in his love.
The most famous lines of the play are said by Christopher Saul, a last minute fill-in for Oliver Cotton in the role of Jaques, who sometimes works from a script but performs the Seven Ages of Man speech from memory and it is a heroic albeit slightly halting effort.
Maureen Beattie’s Celia is wonderfully droll, Robin Soans is striking in his double role as banished duke (Senior) and his tyrant brother (Frederick). James Walters distinguishes himself in ancillary roles while Hayes’s riffs verge on mini standup routines. The greatest achievement here is in fact making Shakespeare seem like comic improv at times.
It is only in the play’s final moments when the back wall lifts to reveal the forest of Arden, hidden but present all along.
This glimpse is tantalising, containing all the magic we have expected to see, but its withholding has a quiet counterintuitive rationalism too.
As You Like It is at Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 5 August.