This is an interestingly counterintuitive move from the RSC. The company has put much emphasis on moving with the times and getting down with the kids. But Omar Elerian’s As You Like It salutes the older generation with a production that hands roles usually played by the fresh-faced to veterans in their sixties, seventies and eighties.
Of course, this isn’t an unheard-of approach – whether it’s Ian McKellen tackling the Dane at 82, or Vanessa Redgrave giving her Beatrice in Much Ado aged 72 in 2013, actors have long been testing perceived age-barriers in well-known roles and plays.
Still, it’s the ensemble prominence of the “golden oldies” here that’s striking, with only a sprinkling of younger players in supporting roles – the conceit being that we’re watching a reunion involving surviving cast-members of a 1978 production of the comedy, the lush spirit of which gets resurrected in an austere rehearsal room.
It takes its time to beguile, and push past a sense of conceptual strain; there’s something cosy about the initial thespian self-awareness and newcomers to the play might get befuddled. Even Geraldine James as Rosalind – at 72, showing that it’s never too late to make your RSC debut – struggles for a while to appear more than a remarkably ageless, agile actress affecting an alert, wide-eyed girlishness.
But interpretation and emotion do stealthily intertwine – the company’s vulnerability chiming with the self-exposing nature of love. You notice the incongruity of Malcolm Sinclair’s advanced years as Orlando amid references to the hero’s youth, his ardour a shadow of the “real thing”, yet its own force.
Fresh comedy emerges from the gap between customary expectation and inhibited execution – the early wrestling bout oozes bathos as Sinclair and Ewart James Walters’s Charles resort to an elaborately effortful round of arm-wrestling. James Hayes obtains a delightful quality of tragicomic zest as Touchstone the clown, luxuriating in a spry frailty and carefree attitude. More poignantly still, Christopher Saul, standing in for an indisposed Oliver Cotton as the melancholy Jaques, brings a fragile, faltering note to that famous Seven Ages of Man speech; even the prompts he gets feel like they’re reinventing the scene.
There’s a colourful burst of infectious nostalgia as the company bop to a loud, psychedelic rock version of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. And there’s a pang of collective recaptured innocence as a climactic coup de théãtre reveals an achingly beautiful forest in which seem to flit the ghosts of all their yesterdays. Not one for the ages, perhaps, but the curiosity value (and the commendability factor) is high.
Until Aug 5. Tickets: 01789 331111 or rsc.org.uk