As You Like It, National Theatre, review: ‘Stunningly innovative’

As You Like It at National Theatre, foreground Paul Chahidi (Jaques). Picture: Johan Persson

As You Like It at National Theatre, foreground Paul Chahidi (Jaques). Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Some truly breath-taking set design is backed by plenty of good humour in this new Shakespeare adaptation, says Alex Bellotti.

All the world’s a stage? Well in the National Theatre’s As You Like It, the stage production is certainly limitless in its ambition: one moment, the audience is staring at a typical corporate office scene replete with desks and chairs; the next, every prop is improbably swept up towards the heavens to form a swirl of fog-lined forestry.

It’s a stunning piece of work by set designer Lizzie Clachan, one that in the wrong hands could easily overshadow the rest of the show. The good news, however, is that As You Like It is otherwise a fresh, slick and consistently funny realisation of Shakespeare’s much-loved pastoral comedy.

Under Polly Findlay’s direction, there is a hint of modern adaptation as we are introduced to star-crossed lovers Orlando and Rosalind in a modern day business headquarters. Yet from the moment they are banished to the forest, the focus returns to the story’s timeless study of love and the carousel of lives inevitably caught up in its path.

Whether delivered by Mark Benton’s knowingly foolish Touchstone or Allan Williams’ dry, sardonic shepherd, the comic potential of every line is seized upon (the childish alliteration of ‘wit, wither wilt’ remains ever reliable). Around this, genuinely hilarious physical touches, such as the entire cast appearing as a flock of sheep, keep up the pace.

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In the leading roles, Joe Bannister shrewdly captures Orlando’s potential to be the wittiest yet dorkiest man in the room, while Rosalie Craig is typically authoritive as the cross-dressing Rosalind. The unlikely star of the show, though, is Patsy Ferran, who draws an oft-unexplored wit and vigour from Rosalind’s cousin Celia.

Behind them, the forest also plays its part. Aside from the visual design, Orlando Gough’s subtle music direction is impressively innovative, as additional cast members sit high up in the trees, mimicking wolf calls and the fluttering of bird wings, occasionally coalescing a capella in the moments of greatest drama.

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The production is not entirely without fault: Paul Chahidi’s Jaque doesn’t exactly scream ‘former libertine’, while the play’s array of songs don’t live long in the memory. Nonetheless, for a night of pre-Christmas entertainment, As You Like It delivers light, good-hearted laughs with an appreciated absence of twee.

Rating: 4/5 stars

As You Like It will be broadcast on February 25 to over 600 UK cinemas as part of National Theatre Live. Visit

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