Sweating, bruised actors wrestling in the small space at Lion and Unicorn Theatre is pretty entertaining, if somewhat alarming. It certainly alarmed the people in the front row of this sweetly concocted production of one of Shakespeare’s most unusual plays.

The plot is a classic matter of disguise and banishment combined with a paean to the simple lusty joys of rural existence. Boyish, angry Orlando has been mistreated by his powerful older brother who in turn is hated by Duke Frederick. When Orlando falls in love with Duke Frederick’s niece he is banished from the land. Rosalind, outraged by her Uncle’s peremptory justice runs away, ‘fair cuz’ and jester in tow. It is hard not to be a little dismayed, every time a new character is introduced, by the exhausting knowledge that each represents a new twist in the over-elaborate story. You had better be paying very close attention if you are to stand any chance of following it.

By the final scene, numerous couples are engaged in layers of confusion and love affairs, searches for their missing fathers/ lovers/ servants and plots to uncover (or muddy) the truth. Director Rae McKen does a good job of bringing out the comedy in all of this, while allowing the intended naivety of the play to come to the fore. Characters in this late work are either very very bad, or extraordinarily ‘good’ and while this could wear thin, the actors are successful in imbuing their various ingénues with a pleasing artlessness.

The difference between the goodness of those who escape to the forest and those ‘bad men’ who remain at home with their wealth is particularly complemented by Edward Lewis’ original music. As with the wrestling, the songs are given a lot of time and respect and although at times both threaten to distract from the flow of the story, they do assist in reinforcing for a modern audience the 16th century world in which Lords were as happy to contemplate song and nature for hours on end as they were ready to pick up a sword and fight for their honour at the drop of an elaborately feathered hat.

When Gershwyn Eustache’s Amiens sings, we are successfully transported to a more contemplative and innocent world than that in which we exist today and to that extent, the time given to song in this production is a sensible move.

Despite its relatively alien subject matter, there is much to enjoy in this play, not least some of the most human and touching scenes of loyalty and affection as well as one of the most famous speeches in the entire Shakespeare canon. ‘All the world’s a stage’, despite its fame, is handled well by McRae, who is neither in awe of it nor willing to forego its role in pointing to the philosophy running through the whole work. It is kept simple and effective, its meaning clear and unobscured by unnecessary staging or histrionics.

This is balanced well by the portrayal of many of the characters, who along with some nicely judged scenes, are so lacking in cynicism they may begin to restore some faith in human nature even in the most jaded of modern Londoners. Oliver Mott does well as the youthful Orlando to convey the touching affection he maintains for his servant, the old Adam, played in a suitably decrepit manner by James Hayward. It provides the first but not the last instance of honour and loyalty being prized above power and wealth. In allowing him to display his love for his dead father’s faithful servant, much warmth is added to the impetuous Orlando.

Fred Gray as the philosophical Jaques particularly excels, handling the language and ever-changing thought patterns of Shakespeare’s speeches beautifully. He is compelling to hear and see, with a lovely lightness of touch balanced by a natural authority on the stage. So confident is he in what he does it is difficult not to have as much confidence in him. In his hands, ‘ All the world’s a stage’ certainly hits home.

Kojo Kamara, too, is entertaining, though for different reasons. He is a commanding presence and is as funny as he is menacing as Charles, the Duke’s wrestler and general dogsbody. He struts around the stage as if he had a knuckle-duster on both hands and is lithe and unpredictable enough to make us believe he would use them.

This play is too meandering and the cast of characters too large to really succeed in providing anything other than a glimpse into the fun that can be had in staging and watching a Shakespeare play. This production certainly doesn’t avoid the numerous pitfalls that inevitably arise but it does succeed in delivering several lovely tableaux of pastoral existence, which would be impossible not to enjoy.

As You Like It, at Lion and Unicorn TheatreSophie Lieven reviews William Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre.3