Perhaps it’s the endless spats in Parliament and the interminable debates on Brexit, but the prospect of fleeing to the Forest of Arden has rarely been more appealing. Directors often re-imagine it as a boisterous hideaway, bursting with music and dance, but Kimberley Sykes’s Arden (designed with a subtle grace by Stephen Brimson Lewis) is soft, still and dappled in natural light. It’s a lovely place to escape to for a while.
The central love story between Rosalind and Orlando is enjoyably gentle. Their courtship is the epitome of young love: all wet grins, flushed faces and loose-limbed ecstasy. David Ajao’s Orlando has the eager energy of a young pup, as he scampers through the forest and scrawls endless letters to his beloved. Just occasionally, Ajao swallows his line in his enthusiasm to woo but his radiant charm is ample compensation.
Lucy Phelps’s Rosalind is the show’s heart and focal point, and a genuinely modern heroine. Phelps is a natural physical comedian, and she winks, shrugs, giggles and wiggles her way into the audience’s affection, backed up brilliantly by Sophie Khan Levy as her glamorous and melodramatic “coz”. The two share a warm, comic chemistry, but there’s real gravitas about Phelps’s performance, too. In a late and arresting scene, Rosalind tears up a love letter and warns young Silvia of the perils of pursuing those who do not, and will never, love you: “Not. To. Be. Endured.”
Some of the elements in Sykes’s production are perhaps a little fussy. There’s an awful lot of gender switching, which initially feels fun and fitting – since much of the plot revolves around disguise and gender flips – but ultimately proves distracting. Without a clear reason for the gender-fluid casting, it becomes just another confusion – another plot twist to resolve – in an already fiendishly complex and plot-driven play. There’s just one gender twist that holds real weight, and that’s the decision to cast Jacques as a woman. Delivered by Sophie Stanton with a sort of nonchalant wisdom, Shakespeare’s most famous speeches suddenly sound new again. “All the world’s a stage”, suggests Stanton in a wonderfully no-nonsense manner, and who are we to disagree?