It’s probably about time we crowned Benji Bailey the resident King of Shakespeare here at St Andrews. Following critically applauded productions of Julius Caesar and Othello (and having taken a production of The Merchant of Venice to the Edinburgh Fringe), As You Like It goes above and beyond the director’s previous work. Bailey draws from the text a wealth of brave, kinetic and electric performances that remind you of just how wonderful student theatre can be. If you don’t read to the end of the review I ask only this of you: go see this play – go see this play – go see this play.
As with other Shakespearean comedies, As You Like It revolves around young lovers, cross–dressing and the woods (in this case, Orlando and Rosalind, Rosalind is hiding out as Ganymede, and the woods happen to be the forest of Arden). So far so typical – yet director Bailey shapes the text into a production that masks its humour with a bitter layer of melancholy. This is not to say that the play is not funny (I spent the entire show giggling at nearly every pun, look and gesture) but rather that the show’s humour is embedded deep into its marrow. If you were to take a superficial glance at the show, one might think that it missed the mark – yet the genius lies in how with the one hand it can accept Jacques’ (played fantastically by Nishant Raj) solemn truths and brush them aside with the other and then flip those truths the finger.
Such a show would be nothing without a talented cast, and As You Like It had no weak link. Ranging from St Andrew’s sublime clown Mattia Mariotti, to Emily Hoyle’s performance as Rosalind (equal parts touching and hilarious) the cast is a veritable who’s who in St Andrews theatre, each giving the play their all. Ebe Bamgboye in particular marks himself out with shear physical presence – the character of Oliver constantly bubbling away under his skin. Similarly the Barron is used to its full potential via splitting the audience onto either side of the stage. This gave a sense of depth missing from other productions. The show was constantly on – the lights never went down, one scene flowed seamlessly into the next, there was no waiting around as people fumbled noisily around in the dark.
The play had some minor flaws – diction, especially early on in the first act, was at times a struggle. While you are never going to get every word, with a source text as rich as Shakespeare being able to hear what people are saying is a priority for audience members. Similarly, the recurring piano sequences felt at times out-of-sorts with the rest of the show – although this paid off in the end in the form of the funniest line dance to grace our stage since last years Queen of Seventh Avenue.
If any of this comes across as disingenuous, or too overabundant in praise, don’t let this put you off. Believe me when I tell you this play was outstanding. Where most shows try to move you to tears or despair, As You Like It has no such pretensions. In shrugging off the burden of self-importance, the show lightens you with it – it is genuinely moving, elating me in a way that hadn’t happened in a quite a while. This feels like one of those plays people will be referencing back to for the next couple of years. Personally, this play has set the high watermark for all plays to follow, Shakespearean or otherwise. Buy yourself a ticket. The Gauntlet has been laid down. All hail the king.