As You Like It: Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘good-natured comedic romp’

For his RSC debut, Omar Elerian has presented “As You Like It” conventionally, as a “good-natured comedic romp packed with laughter”, said Diane Parkes on What’s on Stage. There is a twist, however: all of the main parts are played by actors in their 60s, 70s and 80s – which guarantees exemplary verse-speaking.

Yet this isn’t age-blind casting, in which the actors’ age goes unacknowledged. A very funny Touchstone (James Hayes) explains that the surviving actors from a production staged in the 1970s have reunited to recreate it. This framing device brings added poignancy to the play – and comedy too, derived from the mismatch between the “lusty youths” of the text and the performers’ advanced years, as well as members of the cast wincing in fear of injury during creaky fight scenes, affecting problems remembering their lines and so on.

The production’s conceit “takes its time to beguile, and push past a sense of conceptual strain”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. Newcomers to the play might also find it confusing. “But interpretation and emotion do stealthily intertwine – the company’s vulnerability chiming with the self-exposing nature of love.” Having older leads brings an “unhurried tenderness to the love that blossoms between the various couples”, said Dave Fargnoli in The Stage – while making “the jealousies and dynastic rivalries that drive much of the plot feel especially bitter”.

Certainly, this is the “best-spoken Shakespeare I have heard for ages”, said Susannah Clapp in The Observer: “unfussy, confident, using the rhythm to spring new inflections”. Among a first-rate cast, Hayes’s “freely ad-libbing” Touchstone is a triumph. At times his riffs verge on “mini stand-up routines”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. What is never played for laughs, however, is the central romance between Rosalind and Orlando. Geraldine James, making her RSC debut at 72, captures all the “innocent excitement of first love”, while Malcolm Sinclair’s Orlando is “full of charmingly comic tics but earnest in his love” – and “utterly lovable”.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789-331111; ). Until 5 August. Rating ****