As You Like It’s Joe Bannister: ‘I love that Shakespeare went populist’

Rosalie Craig and Joe Bannister in rehearsals for As You Like It. Picture: Johan Persson

Rosalie Craig and Joe Bannister in rehearsals for As You Like It. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Now playing Orlando in the new National Theatre production, the Camden Town resident tells Alex Bellotti why this high concept rom com has something for everyone.

Whatever relatability an actor might bring to a Hamlet or a Macbeth, Shakespeare has rarely produced a better everyman than Orlando in As You Like It. He may be the protagonist of one of Britain’s most performed plays, but really this bumbling romantic is the sort of endearing klutz who would equally be at home in Bridget Jones’ Diary or Four Weddings and a Funeral.

For unashamed rom-com fan Joe Bannister, making his National Theatre debut in the role has therefore been the opportunity of a lifetime. Starring alongside Rosalie Craig as Orlando’s banished lover Rosalind, he is also excited to be reunited with director Polly Findlay.

“It’s amazing really,” says the 25-year-old. “Over the first few days I was like a hyperactive puppy – I still am. I grew up in London and I’ve been seeing plays here since I was about five – I think it was The Wind In The Willows – so the idea of actually being in a show here is really surreal.

“I remember when I came in to do the audition backstage and Mark Gatiss was just walking past, and the other day Damon Albarn was in the canteen. The second it becomes normal, something like that happens.”

A graduate of Cambridge University, Bannister moved to north London five years ago with a group of burgeoning Footlights alumni: he lives in Camden Town with rising stand-up star Liam Williams, while comedy duo The Pin are nearby in Kentish Town.

Having begun his career with the RSC, the Shepherd’s Bush-raised actor was first introduced to Findlay for the company’s 2014 production Arden of Faversham. When the National Theatre put her in charge of As You Like It, he immediately called his agent and wrote to Findlay explaining his “pipe dream” ambition to play Orlando. He heard little over the next four months and assumed the part had gone, but one day found himself called into an audition and given the part later that day.

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“I’ve never reacted like I did that day,” he laughs now. “I think I told my agent to f*** off, I couldn’t believe it at all. When I first said to her this would be ideal, I was shooting for the sky. Luckily, it worked out.”

The good news is that Bannister doesn’t disappoint in the role. Equally the height of wit and the butt of the joke, he succeeds in his mission to not make Orlando “actually cool” (as he has seen in many productions), but rather someone “just trying to be cool”.

The sentiment fits well with Findlay’s vision. Alongside some of the most astonishing set wizardry you’ll see all year (“a health and safety nightmare”), the NT’s As You Like It hones in specifically on the frustrated desires of its dizzying array of couples.

“I wouldn’t say it’s set in a specific time; it’s a modern world, but quite a strange one,” says Bannister. “Polly started looking at the play and she said that the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech is at the centre of it, revealing how we’re playing parts in life all the time.

“She thought the forest, as opposed to the court, is a place where you can go and be what you want to be, and people will accept it. Rosalind can dress up as a boy and have freedom like that, and Orlando – even though he’s nothing in the real world – can go and become a romantic hero and get the girl. And fight a lion at one point, which is where it gets really weird!”

While it runs until March, the play is in many ways a perfect Christmas production – full of laughs and lacking the heavy conflict of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Whether the new production will change perceptions of As You Like It, however, remains to be seen. As Bannister well knows, critics have often been split about its merits as high art.

“It’s funny,” he says. “In one introduction to an edition of the play I read, a scholar was saying the reason it’s called As You Like It is because Shakespeare had just written some really serious, philosophical plays and then he went, ‘Well as you like it, this is a populist play for everyone’. Which I quite like; I think the scholar was saying it in a snobbish way, but I think it’s got something for everyone and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

“My friends say I have a terrible taste in films, but I do really like romantic comedies and Richard Curtis films and things like that. But [As You Like It] is a higher class because there’s real philosophy, tragedy and depth to it, but also it’s just really funny and moving and if you get it right, which hopefully we will, by the time Rosalind and Orlando finally get together, you do want to just jump up out of your chair and shout.

“It’s all about the intricacies of awkward relationships. And that goes for all the different couples – Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe – often it’s people just missing each other. They just need to realise what it is about the other person and what it is about themselves, and then they can get on with their lives.”

As You Like It runs until March 5.