Although it starts with injustice and the bitter enmity of two sets of brothers, As You Like It blossoms into one of the most good-natured of Shakespeare’s plays.
This is largely to do with the seemingly magical redemptive powers of Shakespeare’s own Forest of Arden, where it seems pursuing villains lose their villainy when stepping into its shade.
But this is a Warwickshire forest, moved to France and populated by lions, as it might appear in a dream. In Michael Boyd’s exhilarating and enjoyable production, there are no trees to be seen.
He underlines the contrast between Jacobean formality of the usurper Duke Frederick’s court and the world of the forest by having the banished Duke Ferdinand and his followers emerge suddenly from trapdoors like pirates.
Extending the metaphor of Rosalind and Celia’s liberation from corseted court dress, it seems that the costumes become gradually more modern as the play progresses.
Key among its various strengths is Katy Stephens’ performance as Rosalind, which is possibly the best I have seen.
Sporting not only a cavalier hairstyle and beard but an extensive repertoire of male mannerisms in disguise as Ganymede, her sparring with Jonjo O’Neill’s Orlando in the role-playing scenes – which can be the one cloying aspect of the play – crackles with electricity.
Rosalind’s familiar epilogue is replaced by a new one, which she sings, in one of a number of departures from convention. These also include the conception of Jaques (Forbes Masson) as a kind of youngish, louche, melancholic singer-songwriter, who borrows the songs usually performed by Amiens.
The shepherds are also re-thought. Out go Silvius and Audrey’s standard mummerset accents, and with them the usual assumption of these characters’ dimness.
Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corin, who takes over the role of Hymen, welcomes the audience back by skinning a rabbit – not a skill to be under-estimated, but not a spectacle for the squeamish, either.
* Running time: Three hours. In repertory until October 3.