Office chairs turned trees: a modern day pastoral

Polly Findlay’s production brings As You Like It back to the National Theatre after a 36 year long absence. As one of the best plays I’ve seen at the National in the past couple of years, it was worth the wait. Highlights include Mark Benton as Touchstone, Paul Chahidi as Jaques, Patsy Ferran as Celia, and of course Rosalie Craig as the heroine, Rosalind.

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We open in a modern office, with workers suited in yellow, pink, grey, orange jackets wielding mysterious silver padded briefcases. The soon to be forest sees screensavers of green forests on computer monitors and bonsais on working desks. In fact this is the closest to foliage we get as tables, chairs, desk lamps spectacularly dismantle to become the bowers of the forest. The movement from the office setting to the Forest of Arden feels not like exile but escape. We retreat from life in the city – watching workers snatch a sandwich in a few moments away from the repetitive motion of industrious activity – to a more leisurely pastoral life; where everything is turned on its head (not just the furniture). Rosalind is disguised as a man, Celia is Aliena, Touchstone is dressed in a sparkly woman’s coat and sporting a couple of floral tote bags. We don’t escape very far, admittedly. The romance of the forest is kept shallow deep with pastoral piss-taking. Lime green post-its shower down for Orlando to attach his verses of ardour to chair legs; whilst the sheep are cast members on all fours, dressed in woolly cream jumpers and with comical chewing faces. The attention to detail is present throughout and is a constant source of pleasure particularly in the scene full of weddings, which delights with 50s swing dresses and paper forest flowers in jewel colours.

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Humorous stage directions give fresh meaning to the bard’s words on more than one occasion. The wrestling ring springing up in the midst of the office for Orlando’s first time on stage reminds me of dwarf tossing in The Wolf of Wall Street. And it seems the awkward encounter of seeing an acquaintance in the street happens too in the forest – Jaques expresses perfectly the strained exaggerated acknowledgement in a beautifully comical series of facial expressions, followed up with the golden line: “let’s meet as little as we can”.

Following the Duke’s angry words casting out Rosalind, as the two girls stand dressed in pjs and fluffy socks it feels like we are watching best friends at a sleepover planning to leave home and start up independent lives. Rosalind transforms: at first curled up on the floor sobbing in despair, she later flits off the stage with the promise of excitement and adventure ahead. There is perhaps a choice to interpret what happens to us and make of it what we will, making much of Celia’s lines “now go we in content/ To liberty and not to banishment” – not to mention the title of the play itself, as you like it. It is this strong healing familial relationship between Rosalind and Celia, and the portrayal of women who are funny and beautiful and independent which is empowering to watch. Rosalind has more lines than any other in the play. She demands courtship from her beloved, organises not just her own but everyone else’s wedding, delivers the epilogue and in a brilliant bit of choreography dips Orlando in their wedding dance. Rosalind makes her entrance as a woman once more in the final scene, reminding me that the end of the play, in its union of the handful of relationships and restoration of the land to the banished Duke, is in fact very much the beginning – and each new moment of time presented to us a fresh birth of possibility and opportunity to shape as we wish.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;

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