JAMES HAYES plays Touchstone in AS YOU LIKE IT at The RSC ★★★★


The Stage

4 stars out of 5

As You Like It review

“Quietly audacious”

Septuagenarian actors tackle themes of ageing, memory and the timeless quality of love in Shakespeare’s sylvan romance

In the fantastical forest of Arden, time seems to stand still as a merry band of exiles and lovesick runaways embrace new identities that authentically reflect their inner passions. With a cast composed mostly of actors aged over 70, Omar Elerian’s quietly audacious reframing of Shakespeare’s bittersweet romance finds fresh and unexpected resonances in the familiar text.

Here, the wisdom and the frailties of age are explicitly contrasted with the recklessness and exuberance of youth. With the play’s principal characters now depicted as advanced in years, there’s an unhurried tenderness to the love that blossoms between the various couples, while the jealousies and dynastic rivalries that drive much of the plot feel especially bitter.

Elerian plays up the comic potential of the atypical casting, with frequent sight gags and silly asides. Though the energy dips in places – the subplot involving shepherds Silvius and Phoebe feels especially superfluous – there are some compelling, inventive ideas on display, too. An intriguing framing device implies that the performers are attempting to recreate a version of the play that they performed decades before, from memory, and a new epilogue composed by Robin Soans sublimely recreates the wit and warmth of Shakespeare’s language.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s sparse, realistic set initially seems to place the action in a perfectly ordinary rehearsal room, bare except for a few chairs and ranks of harsh halogen strip lights hanging overhead. But as the actors immerse themselves more deeply in the world of the play, more whimsical elements are introduced: swords and flower crowns, brightly coloured fabrics, hunting trophies.

Malcolm Sinclair’s Orlando is an understated presence, his infatuation with Geraldine James’ Rosalind more sweetly sentimental than all-consumingly passionate. James, meanwhile, portrays the disguised noblewoman with a mixture of playful evasiveness and open-heartedness, unable to keep her face from lighting up every time she lays eyes on Orlando. The two share a plausible, unforced chemistry.

James Hayes provides masterly comic relief as wise fool Touchstone, regularly breaking character to comment wittily on the action as he prowls about the stage, reeling off puns and paradoxes with apparent effortlessness. Joining the cast at late notice, Christopher Saul invests melancholy courtier Jaques with solemn gravity, his brow furrowed with world-weariness; and Ewart James Walters gives a memorable turn as champion wrestler Charles, imbuing the antagonistic character with unexpected charm.

The production develops into a celebration of the transformative power of forgiveness and is a reminder that love is no less moving or meaningful when it comes later in life.

The Telegraph

4 stars out of 5

As You Like It: salutes the golden oldie generation of actors – with sparkling results

The RSC’s conceit takes time to beguile, but fresh humour and poignancy emerge in this commendable take on Shakespeare’s comedy

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 hand-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.

Whats On Stage 

4 stars out of 5

RSC’s As You Like It review – older age takes centre stage

Omar Elerian’s production features a cast of performers almost exclusively over the age of 70

Diane Parkes 

Directed by Omar Elerian, this Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It brings a fresh perspective to the comedy, turning the focus onto age and the ageing process.

The play is set in a device in which a group of ageing actors are attempting to recreate a production they performed 45 years ago. Initially, the sets and costumes are in their imagination and they sit on a largely bare stage recalling the past. They then perform the play as their older selves. And this is really effective. Rather than being a production where an older actor is, somewhat awkwardly, playing a much younger role, here they are shouting their age from the rooftops, creating comedy from the constant references to them being ‘young’ or ‘lusty youths’ while sporting grey hair and even walking sticks.

The theme is milked for all it’s worth – fight scenes have the actors wincing at the fear of injury, lines are forgotten and prompted and there are constant looks to the audience at some of the more incongruous speeches.

The audience is immediately asked to be complicit with the device when James Hayes, as the actor playing the fool Touchstone, explains the scenario. Hayes continues to converse with the audience throughout the show, constantly reconnecting with us and bringing an additional element of dry humour as he raises an eyebrow at certain lines or jokingly shows off his costumes – not least a Frankie Goes to Hollywood-inspired T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘RELAX’ as he begins his own romantic endeavours.

Seeing the production through the eyes of these older actors brings new light to many of its themes and speeches. Much of the play focuses on sudden love and we are being asked why can’t a spark be ignited in the heart of a 70-year old just as readily as in that of a 20-something? And we see how the themes of family rivalry can become so much more bitter the longer they last.

It also brings a touch of poignancy to the piece. Elerian was largely prompted to re-focus the play by the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech delivered by the contemplative Jaques and that speech takes on an additional resonance in this production.

Christopher Saul has currently stepped in at short notice to play Jaques due to the indisposition of Oliver Cotton and he performs this speech seated at the back of the stage in jeans and a T-shirt. Stripped back to basics, his words takes on a terrible sadness as our own lives pass so briefly before us. And when Saul’s character pauses, needing a prompt to remember, we feel all too keenly the vulnerability that can come with age.

There is so much talent and stage experience packed into this production. Malcolm Sinclair is a lovesick Orlando, who mopes through the would-be forest pinning his verses to Rosalind to make-believe trees while Geraldine James gives us a wry Rosalind who can verbally spar with anyone and yet can also fall head-over-heels in love like a giddy teenager.

Maureen Beattie’s Celia is an energetic and enthusiastic supporter for Rosalind, veering between egging her on and advising caution. And David Fielder’s lovestruck Silvius is so pathetic in his wooing of the less-than-enthusiastic Phoebe, played by Celia Bannerman, that the entire audience is willing him to succeed.

Alongside all of this, four younger actors take on many of the smaller roles and support the older cast as they attempt to recall their memories of the past.

The set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita sees us in a largely empty rehearsal room but makes good use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre space, such as when a group of rock musicians descend from the skies to lead the actors in a high-spirited rendition of the song “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind”. And she has a few surprises up her sleeve as the show progresses.

Essentially what Elerian is giving us is a good-natured comedic romp packed with laughter. His staging offers plenty of opportunities for additional humour while also reminding us of the breadth of experience, not just of our older actors, but of all older people. In a society so often focused on youth and newness, it’s a timely reminder.

The Times

4 stars out of 5

As You Like It review — showing the youngsters how it’s done

This grand auditorium has seldom felt quite so intimate. If directors sometimes struggle to make the best use of the RSC’s main stage — think of that recent, maddeningly garbled version of Julius Caesar — Omar Elerian’s first production for the company fills the space with the most elemental instrument of all: the human voice.

Not that these are ordinary voices. This venture, you see, is dominated by actors of a certain vintage. Our Rosalind is the septuagenarian Geraldine James (who is also, remarkably enough, making her RSC debut). Orlando is played by another veteran, Malcolm Sinclair, dressed down in white T-shirt and denim. Wherever you look, in fact, you see a face from the older end of the profession, with just a handful of younger actors in supporting roles.

At the end of last year, at Sohoplace in London, Josie Rourke gave us a version of this pastoral comedy in which a pianist wove a central running commentary.

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Here in Stratford, a rock band descended from the ceiling just before the interval, as if suddenly raising a toast to the age of Aquarius, but the real music was to be found in the profoundly sensitive verse speaking. James and her colleagues, including Maureen Beattie as a cheerfully robust Celia, make every syllable count.

The conceit here is that we are watching a cast reassemble in casual clothes for a visit to the Forest of Arden nearly half a century after they came together to explore the text. The designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita gives us a set that is an unglamorous rehearsal room. Heavyweight strip lights hang overhead; only later do some of them become swings for the wanderers to rest on. At the close of the evening, as the rear wall rises, we finally glimpse a mist-drenched forest.

Does it take time to adjust to the senior citizen theme? Not when seventy is the new forty, and we’ve already seen the octogenarian Ian McKellen tackle Hamlet. James moves with fluidity and grace. When she and Sinclair first look into each other’s eyes there is a teenage dizziness to their gestures.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Oliver Cotton take the role of Jaques, but due to his indisposition his place was taken by the sonorous Christopher Saul. If the pacing in the second half threatens to drag, the good news is that James Hayes makes a supremely mischievous Touchstone, dressed up in one absurd outfit after another and muttering “James Hayes, classical actor” as he prepares to steal yet another scene. He is the lord of misrule.

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