ELLA WILSON and DANIEL LUBIN review UCL Drama Society’s As You Like It.

Plastic trees and a pale patchwork backdrop. The neutrality of Georgia Green’s set creates a kind of liminal space, initially capturing the clinical and menacing courtroom before transforming into the cool boughs of the forest. In this way the stage is perfectly adapted for the two environments of UCL Drama Society’s As You Like It, directed by Polly Creed and produced by George Jibson. Their production reimagines and re-contextualises Shakespeare’s play, seating it in a firmly modern place thematically, even as its setting is contextually ambiguous.

The production draws more out of the Shakespeare by leaning in to some of its queer themes. Though queerness emerges in the script through Rosalind cross-dressing as ‘Ganymede’, many male characters in this production are recast as women, such as Jaques (Róisín Tapponi) and Duchess Senior (Olivia Perrett), with their pronouns changed appropriately. Most notably, Ema Cavolli is cast in the role of Touchstone, the fool. Touchstone’s relationship is queered as she marries another woman, and they do not make a big deal out of it; a woman is marrying a woman, and in the idyllic world created here it is not even worthy of comment. Cavolli makes the character flirtatious and often almost aggressively sexual, indiscriminately coming on to men and women alike with her camp, archly aristocratic manner getting some of the biggest laughs of the night. Although a figure of fun, the casting of the role places a woman in the sexually forward position, repossessing the male realm of comedic cads and sexual vagabonds. This feels quietly radical, in a similar way to Rosalind taking control over Orlando’s courtship of her through her male disguise.

Photo courtesy of Tara Rose Photography.

The performers are full of wit and vivacity, and as a chorus there is not a weak link among them. The cast use modern ad-libs to a perfect degree, dropping anachronistic ‘like’s and ‘literally’s for comic effect but never gratuitously. Amy Reade’s Rosalind is vibrant, excitable, charged by sharp intellect. She and Freddie House sell their chemistry very well, his Orlando sincere, almost puppyish, and his lovesickness both believable and very funny. The sisterly bond between the cousins is strong: Poppy Crumpton as Rosalind’s cousin Celia is constantly engaging in her comic quirks, and convincingly plays out ‘love at first sight’ when she falls for Orlando’s brother Oliver (Philip Chennery). Róisín Tapponi imbues Jaques with irreverent humour and genuine melancholy, reacting appropriately indifferently to the action around her. Olivia Perrett’s Duchess Senior is a kind and commanding presence, while Ismail Ben Amor’s Duke Frederick is menacing and malevolent. This contrast creates a distinct juxtaposition between the environment of the court and that of the forest, further defined by the motley crew of merry men in the forest and the sinister courtiers in the early scenes. 

Polly Creed’s direction shines most clearly in the ways in which she has altered the original script to really bring the show to life. The courtly environment is established by a series of sequences performed in strict unison by the Duke and courtiers. They swan around the stage with a severity of manner in the eerie blue light before pouncing into an animalistic crouch at the banquet table to spoon cream into their mouths by hand. Later ‘unscripted’ scenes include the stationary arms race between Jacques and Orlando, and the awkward croissant date Orlando has with Ganymede/Rosalind. As the opening court scene asserts the environment, these two scenes playfully construct the characters further, whether it’s in Jacques’ dry cynicism or Orlando childish awkwardness, as the extent his romanticism reaches is a rose in a water bottle. It is these sequences that take the production beyond the script, and bring it to life with all its nuances, asserting what makes it unique and clearly defining its distinct tone.

Photo courtesy of Tara Rose Photography.

But most important of these additions is the goddess Hymen’s prologue. A character who appears in the script only at the marriage scene, in this production Hymen leads the characters onstage at the beginning and off again at the end. This device opens the play, showing the production itself to be a theatrical construction, making the audience aware of the magic coming together, and embodying Jacques’ philosophy that ‘All the world’s a stage’. The actors enter in plain, neutral outfits led by the goddess. As she delivers a prologue devised by Polly and the cast describing their characters they dress themselves as their characters; we see them as props becoming animated. More than this, even after the curtain call, Hymen enchants the players and leads them offstage again. This is a production that draws attention to its own performativity, and captures the nature of theatre itself. The artificiality of the stage is acknowledged – as we see the actors dressing we see what ought to happen backstage – yet it is in this artifice that theatre’s magic lies. The element of the supernatural immediately asserts the play’s power and confidence; the unity of the actors regardless of character captured the troupe as a community. 

UCL Drama’s As You Like It has standout moments of creative inspiration but it was the subtleties of every actor’s performance that made it the show it was. While inevitably defined by its ease and playfulness both in performance and in its approach to casually constructing queer narratives, it is also a production that takes itself seriously, and forces its audience to do so too. As we’re told the show is an illusion, we’re reminded of how truly magical it is.

As You Like It played at RADA Studios from 30th Nov – 2nd Dec. Find more information here.