The Lazarus Theatre Company (whose ‘Women of Troy’ we hugely enjoyed) continues their season of classics with two Shakespeare plays – As You Like It and King Lear. Nestled away on the otherwise inauspicious environs of London’s Isle of Dogs (DLR territory) is The Space, an architectural jewel. A converted church, The Space is now a dedicated theatre venue with a Gothic flavour which is home to As You Like It and King Lear for the next few weeks.
If the idea of a church conjures images of hard and uncomfortable wooden pews, then we can happily disabuse you. Comfortable seating forms a horseshoe shape around a nifty bespoke stage. The company maximises the use of limited space, with the actors waiting patiently in plain sight for their entrances and exits; though full costume changes occasionally proved distracting in more ways that one.
A riff of Kate Bush prior to the action, and the unexpected sight of the actors appearing on stage from an elevated platform dressed in corporate suits, sets a contemporary scene. A blast of music and a choreographed dance routine spells out visually but unmistakeably the premise of the story: the evil Duke has banished his brother and many others from the court, forcing them to adapt to a rural life in the Forest of Arden where the shepherds and other country folk live.
Rosalind, amongst the banished, disguises herself as a boy, little realising that the dishy Orlando (also banished) has already fallen in love with her and is swooning around in the forest writing awful love poems about her. Passing herself off as the cocksure Ganymede, Rosalind regularly meets with Orlando to give him ‘his’ advice on matters of romance.
Shakespeare’s comedy is about love, and is also a celebration (if sentimentalised) of the simpler pastoral way of live over the cutthroat court (or ‘city’, as this adaptation astutely establishes). Banishment for many characters proves a blessing.
The Lazarus ensemble works brilliantly well together, so it’s a little unfair to single out individuals. Nevertheless, some parts are gifts for actors. Dan Wheeler is excellent as Jacques, the affected and pompous melancholic gentleman. The courtship between the countrified love-struck Silvius and the sour object of his affections, Phoebe, provides a great double-act for Jonathan Ashby-Rock and Alex Rivers, who are hilarious throughout. Ben Margalith has a nice line in dry wit as Orlando, the romantic male lead. His approach proves a masterstroke as in truth it’s a slightly thankless part since Orlando is characterised as a brave, earnest and dim-witted (as revealed not least by his failure to see through Rosalind’s cunning disguise – unless of course it’s a double bluff?) composer of doggerel. It’s credit to Margalith that he consistently finds ways to spark off Rosamund Hine’s feisty Rosalind.
This adaptation of As You Like It has been strongly conceptualised, with a definite setting and Lazarus’ trademark visual, fast-paced style. It focusses strongly on the threads of Shakespeare’s play it most wants to examine, whilst unabashedly culling others (the comic relief clown Touchstone’s absence allows the Silvius/Phoebe romance to develop without interference from a randy jester). Other smaller parts, such as Amiens (played with wonderful sedateness by Neil Allen), are given the time and space to breathe. The only difficulty that arises from this approach is a repeated need to convey the passage of time.
As in any adaptation of As You Like It, it’s Rosalind who forms the beating heart of the story, and Rosamund Hine’s hugely enjoyable comic performance gives the strong concept a heart-warming emotional core. Hine is brilliantly funny when ‘disguised’ as Ganymede, affecting a masculine bravura. She pitches the part perfectly to straddle the two conflicting aspects of Shakespeare’s unusual heroine: she’s neither too gracefully feminine as Rosalind (becoming enjoyably mushy and gushing, not to mention clumsy, when learning of Orlando’s feelings for her) nor too masculine as Ganymede. Her deft comic timing sets the pace for the other actors and ably conveys the androgynous nature of love; since men and women fall at her feet whether she’s Rosalind or Ganymede. Everything falls into place around Hine’s captivating central performance.
Tight and fast as a movie, but without losing the sense of the story or the rhythm of the words (it’s good to see that Jacques’ famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech is left intact), this adaptation of As You Like It is sure to charm you. It continues Lazarus’ successful season with another contemporised classic that feels as fresh as a daisy re-imagined through modern theatre and storytelling techniques.