MARIA Aberg's "anarchic summer love story" is fresh, exciting and full of sexual tension.
The 33-year-old Swedish director’s contemporary revival of As You Like It has the feel of a Glastonbury-style music festival: there’s a live folk band in the woods, a weed-smoking Jamaican Rasta as minister and beautiful atmospheric music composed by award-winning folk singer, Laura Marling.
Actors swagger like rock stars. The hilarious ad-libbing ‘Royal Clown’ Touchstone (played by Nicholas Tennant) looks like Ian Dury in a bowler hat, red nose, and dinner jacket with skinny black leggings and Docs. While the banished long-haired Duke, who has the elegance of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, is an old hippy camping out in the Forest of Arden. The music even sends Oliver Ryan’s wonderfully funny Jaques into a weird hypnotic festival trance.
But the show belongs to Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, who complement each other perfectly – as the love-struck Rosalind and Orlando. Their passion is fervent and frenzied. Members of the audience audibly gasp at the actress’s transformation from sexy vamp to the androgynous Ganymede. Make-up free with short cropped hair, piercing blue eyes to match her preppy denim shirt and tweed braced trousers she looks totally believable in disguise as a swaggering, crotch-adjusting youth.
This is where it gets hot and steamy. ‘Anarchy’ creeps into the young lover’s relationship as cross-dressing Rosalind gets Orlando to act out his feelings for her, while pretending to be a man. Pippa, who is also playing Ophelia in the RSC’s Hamlet, gives another exquisite performance. Alex is a tender, poetic and passionate accordion-playing Orlando. His relationship with his father’s loyal, ageing servant, Adam, is also genuinely touching.
The play is beautifully styled. In the dark, opening scenes of the brutal usurping Duke Ferdinand’s court all the characters are dressed in black on an empty wooden set. The bare-chested bloody knuckle fight between Charles the Wrestler and Orlando is like a scene from David Fincher’s film The Fight Club. Once the action moves to the Forest of Arden there is an explosion of colour, fairy lights and bunting.
Joanna Horton’s sweet, soulful Celia and her bearded beau-to-be Oliver, Orlando’s reformed older brother, make a quirky pair.
As the wild rustic revelry of the exhilarating finale plays out it is clear Aberg was more influenced by the mud, music and physical abandonment of summer festivals, like Glastonbury and the Secret Garden, than Elizabethan England. It was a risk worth taking and works brilliantly.
Until Sept 28.