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As You Like It?
The Pleasance, Islington
15th May 2015

★★★☆☆

Publicity photograph for As You Like It?

Photography provided by Purple Ostrich Productions

When it comes to the arts, you need a lot of self-belief to make it. Theatre has plenty of lows as well as highs, and if you don't have absolute faith in what you're doing, you won't last long enough to land that elusive big break. Well, confidence is not something in which Kerry Fitzgerald is lacking. She hasn't just adapted any old person's play, she's only rewritten a very famous old person's play. Taking on the Bard? English literature's most well-known and beloved playwright? That's even more ballsy then taking on Charles the Wrestler.

If you get the reference, you already know the original story. But to recap, in As You Like It, a bunch of posh folk leave their rather nice town and go to live in a forest. A girl plays a girl playing a boy, there's plenty of mistaken identity and jolly old japes, and then inexplicably everyone who's meant to be with everyone ends up with everyone. In this version, which comes with a question mark at the end of the title, Rosalind (Louise Lee) and Celia (Fitzgerald) aren't just BFFs forever, Fitzgerald has brought out the subtext of Shakespeare's work, and the two women are closer than is often portrayed on stage. When we first are introduced to the three couples - Orlando (Sebastian Christophers) and Rosalind, Phoebe (Kate Handford) and Silvius (Tom McNulty), Oliver (William Sebag Montefiore) and Celia - we half expect Rosalind and Celia to run off together. But the basic outline has been left untouched.

As the production gets into the swing of things, Lee's performance becomes more and more energetic and overblown and her character starts to come across as verging on crazy, which director Roxy Cook really milks for laughs. With Shakespeare, directors often play it straight - pun intended - but in this LGBTQ inspired adaptation, Cook makes clear this is meant to be a comedy. Fitzgerald is always more understated than her co-leading lady, but this frequently helps rebalance the tone, and there's a lot of depth in Celia's sulky glances towards Rosalind and Orlando. You can feel the pure jealousy dripping off her. It's an interesting dynamic as it undermines the ending somewhat - are we expected to believe Celia can truly find happiness with anyone other than Rosalind?

In addition to keeping the three main couples, Fitzgerald retains the character of Touchstone (Lise Aagaard Knudsen). The court jester is underused in the second half, but Knudsen is a fabulous supporting actress, frequently adding humour to a scene by doing nothing more than loitering in the background and pulling faces. Handford too makes for able support, her mannerisms and intonation cutting through any difficulty in following 17th century dialogue.

Why Rosalind and Celia are working in a pub, and why they suddenly end up in the wilderness doesn't feel properly explained, with the modern retelling not quite hitting the mark, even if Touchstone's drunkenness is wonderfully funny. However, Emma Tompkin's set design lends an air of romanticism to the production. The scenery is made up of five cream cut-out panels, each depicting part of the woods. It's a simple but striking backdrop and provides opportunities for the protagonists to skulk in the background partially in sight, emphasising the secrets and half-truths in the plot which must come out by the conclusion. The panels also put us in mind of delicately designed pages of a newly reprinted book of old fairytales, rebranded for a new generation. Highly appropriate then.

The protagonists frequently sit on the floor, and in the StageSpace of the Pleasance, this means the audience miss out on the full impact of several scenes. It may be that the company have a different venue in mind for when they take this show somewhere else, but Cook has to understand the space she has to work with for any given run, and ensure no audience member suffers from the dreaded restricted view. As for the transition between the first half and the interval, it's unclear whether the action has actually paused, and this leads to some confusion. If Roxy wants to keep Celia on stage, she needs to make her intentions clearer using a shift in light and music to signal the break.

This is the first time that Purple Ostrich have presented As You Like it? - indeed, it's their first production - and whilst it is rough around the edges in places, that's the whole point of a trial run. There are a few slips, fumbles and wandering accents, but with another, longer run, these will be ironed out in the previews phase. A few tweaks and a bit more refinement are required, but in the main, Fitzgerald's gamble pays off. Feminist twists on the classics are hard to get right, but there is a lot to be applauded in both this company's ambition and execution.

As You Like It? opened on 14th May and runs until 16th May 2015 at The Pleasance, Islington.

Nearest tube station: Caledonian Road (Piccadilly)



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