Of all Shakespeare’s comedies, this is the one which most combines memorable lines – the seven ages of man, Rosalind’s quickfire epigrams about love – with a defiantly absurd plot and a rejection of every probability except that of young love. Indeed I should confess that the prolonged homoerotic practice-wooing between Orlando and a disguised Rosalind in britches has in many productions made me what to howl “Oh, tell him you’re a girl! Get on with it!” And that’s even without the lion-attack-rescue-reconciliation between Orlando and Oliver, – covered in one rushed speech – or the sudden resolution of the old feud as a messenger turns up in the last minute to announce that the wicked Duke has met a monk and changed his ways. It makes you suspect that Shakespeare, up against a deadline, suddenly realized he had got four girls in wedding-dresses and their grooms, plus a long-lost father and a depressed Jacques, all stuck in the middle of a forest with no money. Quick! Reform an offstage Duke!

Its central theme, though, is eternally appealing: that a stiff, unhappy, formal and arid world must be shaken up, its inhabitants thrown into a hostile forest so they can re-work their relationships. So director Polly Findlay opens it in a formal office, where bells govern everything and the only foliage is screensavers and stunted bonsai trees next to the shredders . It looks like a bit of a City trading-floor, not least when Joe Bannister’s blond, public-schooly Orlando has to wrestle, first with his domineering brother (Philip Arditti) and then more dangerously, with Leon Annor, enormous in Lycra and fright-mask, who has been tipped to kill him.
When Rosalind and Celia flee , rather than replace the office set by flying in some trees, designer Lizzie Clachan offers a scenic coup de theatre. Desks and chairs fly upwards, toppling and spilling to hang: monochrome, tangled and threatening as a winter forest. Some chairs still have cast members lurking aloft on them, making sinister woodland sounds. It looks like a freeze-framed explosion in Staples.

At first it felt a bit too clever, a desperate measure; but on the ground there is solidity, and the two fugitive girls carry it. Rosalie Craig is an utterly charming Rosalind, suddenly powerful and confident in her drag, and Patsy Ferran a mischievous physical foil as Celia: nimble and scornful and practical. The forest people too become foils and mirrors: there’s John Ramm as the exiled Duke clinging bravely to decency, Paul Chahidi an unusually troubled Jacques deep in questioning depression, and the shepherds. Among whom Siobhan McSweeney is a standout funny Audrey, and Ken Nwosu delivers the famous definitions of love with a poignant perfection.

So gradually the production drew me to its weird, angular, ultimately bright neon heart. The company singing, by Orlando Gough, is ravishing in it its eerie yearning harmonies. And the introduction of a flock of sheep played by the huge ensemble crawling around in Arran sweaters is a definite enhancement; especially as so many of them make the additional effort to jostle, try and mount each other, graze nose-down, and chew showily. One heroic ram fully consumes one of the hundreds of green Post-It notes on which Orlando writes his awful poems. Actors, gotta love ‘em!
box office 0207 452 3000 to 5 March
In cinemas on 25 Feb 2016
Rating four   4 Meece Rating


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