Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 26 August 2018
Democratic, open, inclusive seem to be the keywords for Michelle Terry’s approach to her inaugural season. New artistic director; new directions. A Globe Ensemble performing two plays, As You Like It and Hamlet, rehearsing together and breathing the same rehearsal air in a process designed to free up the plays to fresh interpretation.
The approach leads to what for some might call perverse choices and others an extraordinary and youthful reflection of our fluid times for a play – As You Like It (Hamlet I’ve still to see) – all about love and gender fluidity.
Not that having a male Rosalind, for example, is in itself anything new. As far back in modern times (sic!) as 1967, Clifford Williams’ all-male As You Like It at The Old Vic produced, I quote (from The Spectator) – “Anthony Hopkins’ impassive, monumental and eternally feminine Audrey. Robert Stephens’ Jaques plus a youngish Ronald Pickup as Rosalind, Charles Kay as Celia and Derek Jacobi as Touchstone. Declan Donnellan’s famous Cheek by Jowl production was famed for Adrian Lester’s Rosalind (with Tom Hollander as his Celia).”
So no, nothing new in Jack Laskey’s energetic, charismatic Rosalind who first appears in a dazzling, brocaded full-skirted Elizabethan farthingale frock like some apparition of the Virgin Queen herself.
His Celia, though, is the BSL signing Nadia Nadarajah, Orlando the diminutive Bettrys Jones and all other parts topsy turvily gender-switched including female shepherds, a male Audrey (the very galumphing and wonderfully larger than life Globe regular, James Garnon) and Helen Schlesinger doubling as Duke Frederick and the banished Duke Senior. Terry herself is hardly recognisable in a trio of tiny male roles of Adam, William and Jaques de Boys, Orlando’s other brother.
The result is in many ways revealing and occasionally frustrating. If a play is anything, as Michelle Terry and the Ensemble directors Federay Holmes and Elle While point out in the programme, it is about its immediacy. Does it live in its own moments? Does it embrace its audience and create its own time-frame and bubble in which we happily luxuriate for a couple of hours? Does it, in short, live?
There is no doubt that this As You Like It lives. It has an organic sense to it, a fluidity not just apparent in its gender swopping but in its very existence. You absolutely sense the actors know each other inside out. This gives them an openness and a naturalness even according to the strict dictats of delivering Shakespearean verse that is unusually appealing.
Laskey’s Rosalind, particularly, seems wholly at ease in both skins – female and the leather jerkined male counterpoint, Ganymede. And it is Laskey who carries the lion’s share of interpreting his Celia’s BSL language. And whose energy, paradoxically – or ironically – predominates; a male energy speaking female sentiments originally written for a male actor, written by a male playwright. How many modern playwrights could produce so many bewildering layers of subtext?!
It must, too, be a first for BSL to have been incorporated quite so unselfconsciously into a main stage production. Sometimes it as though time stops whilst Nadarajah is in full gestural flow which can be disconcerting.
But it also has the enormous benefit of concentrating the attention. And joint directors Holmes and While make sure there are plenty of small details of humour to break those moments of suspension such as the flick of the wrist costume changes from Court to pastoral or the sheep in the Forest of Arden portrayed by four actors on all fours who then stand and walk off-stage.
Everything here is about `theatre’ as make-believe as if the play’s major theme of Love and Love’s bewitching misunderstandings and miscommunications were writ large and graphically, a veritable hall of deceiving mirrors.
Most of this sits delightfully in the Globe’s very special ambience and audience that picks up on Jaques’s calling `fools into a circle’ with roars of delight.
© Tristram Kenton, Bettrys Jones and Jack Laskey as the cross-gendered Orlando and Rosalind
It may not be to all tastes and even to my ears, some of the text inevitably is sacrificed on the altar of nonchalance (Jaques’s in-famous `all the world’s a stage’ in Quigley’s hands gets particularly short shrift delivered as he encircles one of the Globe’s pillars and perversely, I imagine, inaudible to half the audience on the other side of the auditorium!). Nor does the disparity in height between Laskey’s tall and gangly Rosalind beside Bettrys Jones’ feisty but overshadowed Orlando give off any extra meaning.
But Ellan Parry’s delicious fusion of formal Elizabethan and every-day costuming works brilliantly, especially the final wedding transformation where the lovers are delivered to their rightful owners by a magnificent Hymen (Tanika Yearwood) in full bridal veil and voluminous skirts, from out of which emerges Rosalind and Celia similarly bedecked.
As Laskey’s Rosalind too delivers his/her epilogue, suddenly his `my way is to conjure you’ takes on a throat swelling poignancy. Here, in this place, four hundred years ago, actors `conjured’ and beguiled their audiences. And so here, too, in 2018, theatre and As You Like It has again worked its magic.