July 1, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
As You Like It @ Shakespeare’s Globe
Everyone who complained about Michelle Terry ‘casting herself’ as Hamlet in the Globe ensemble’s other production should be forced to watch the joyful (and, imho, superior) As You Like It, and use the same logic to account for the Globe’s Artistic Director, on hands and knees, scraping along the floor and baaing as one of Corin and Silvius’s sheep. This beautifully timed moment – with the ensemble appearing in the discovery space as if emerging for a procession, before sombrely bending down and bleating – was emblematic of both the zany creativity of this production, and of the ethos of the Globe ensemble. These twelve actors have created productions much more than the sum of their (many and varied) parts, and in As You Like It (a play whose parts are rather more balanced than Hamlet’s), it felt like the gloves had come off.
Terry haunted the production in a number of small roles: she offered slow, dignified support to Bettrys Jones’s Orlando as Adam; she interrupted the celebrating ensemble in the final moments as Jaques de Boys; and she dressed herself up smartly to woo Audrey as William, before being outwitted and scared off by Colin Hurley’s Touchstone in one of several nice linking moments between the two productions; the image of the Ghost putting fear into Hamlet’s soul was here ghosted in comic vein in Touchstone’s fire-and-brimstone threatening of the hapless country boy. Terry’s pop-up appearances showed the Globe’s new AD able to support as well as lead, adding fresh energy to her scenes before disappearing again.
As with Hamlet, the production cast several roles against actor gender, leading to Jack Laskey – a brilliant Orlando back in 2009 – taking the nominal lead as Rosalind. Tall and earnest, Laskey’s Rosalind was an open-hearted and sometimes guileless heroine, but it was the partnership with Nadia Nadarajah as Celia that defined the performance. With Celia Deaf, Rosalind acted as her BSL interpreter throughout the production as well as speaking their shared scenes in both BSL and spoken English; I have no idea what Laskey’s BSL literacy was before, but he worked harder than I’ve ever seen any Rosalind (credit also to Hurley, who had fewer BSL scenes but similarly integrated it seamlessly when with the women). In character terms, this meant that Rosalind was a much more active listener than usual, regularly ceding the space to Celia so that she could watch and translate for her friend, and keeping her eyes on Celia rather than mooning after Orlando. I hadn’t realised it until I saw this performance, but retrospectively it seems odd to me that Rosalind – who can be quite the self-involved performer – knows those around her well enough to pull off her many tricks; in Laskey’s watchful, empathic performance, this made complete sense.
This is not to say that Laskey was doing Nadarajah’s job, of course. Celia was a revelation; the noisiest Celia, in fact, that I’ve ever seen. Absolutely insistent that people attend to her (including stamping her feet when those she was speaking to rudely turned away), Celia physically inserted herself into the scenes and kept up an often unbroken commentary, making exactly clear her thoughts and feelings – especially as Rosalind offered to ‘marry’ Orlando. Celia had a wicked sense of humour, including standing behind Orlando and miming stroking his hair while he spoke to Rosalind, and her passionate energy was both a motivator and a potential pitfall for Rosalind, who more than once had to wrestle her companion into silence. The bond between the two was symbiotic, intertwining their fates and lending a sense of security and confidence to both. Early, the two coined a sign for ‘Orlando’ that involved them opening their mouth in a wide ‘o’ and placing a sensual finger on their lower lip, and the shared investment of both of them in winning over Orlando for Rosalind allowed for an unusual camaraderie.
This particular matinee was also BSL-interpreted; Taz Hockaday was wonderful, keeping up an expressive translation that segued in and out of what was happening on stage – for much of the scenes between the women, Laskey and Nadarajah’s signs were allowed to speak for themselves. I was pleased to see that an ensemble for whom BSL is an embedded language felt able to interact with Hockaday, most obviously in Touchstone and Audrey’s (James Garnon) final song, where the two freely flirted with and mocked the interpreter, who joined in with their song heartily.
Orlando and Oliver were played by Bettrys Jones and Shubham Saraf, reprising their sibling relationship from Hamlet. With more to do here, Jones came into her own. The production made a great deal of her height as she overpowered the much taller Oliver and, in a makeshift wrestling ring held up by the ensemble, Richard Katz’s towering Charles. The perennial underdog, Orlando was pugnacious and uncowable, at least until he met Rosalind. As Rosalind bent down to put her necklace around Orlando’s neck, Orlando was left with his neck craned, gazing upwards in frozen wonder at her beauty (a posture Celia later mimicked in evocation of the man). The two lovers had fun chemistry, especially during the wooing as Rosalind spread her legs in a coming-on disposition and Orlando enthusiastically straddled her, to Celia’s horror; for the most part, though, their courtship was sweet and sincere.
The more serious parts of the plot were well served. Oliver was a suitably hissable villain (made even more so in Hockaday’s interpretation), pathetic when overpowered but almost gleeful when learning of the contest with Charles. Following his conversion, Oliver’s open contrition and free acceptance of his fault (especially in the face of Celia’s energetic condemnation) sold the significance of what had occurred between he and Orlando, and his and Celia’s quiet falling in love (with Rosalind offering some mediation) was genuinely sweet. Helen Schlesinger, meanwhile, played a brash Duke Frederick who barked at audience members for laughing at him, had a sword held to Oliver’s throat, and whose cruelty in the banishment of Rosalind was particularly brutal; it was notable, too, that the Duke didn’t use BSL when speaking to his own daughter.
Where the court used broadly Elizabethan costumes, the Forest of Arden saw an explosion of recycled colour. The ensemble threw their robes and overcoats around and inside out to reveal jerkins with sewn on CND and cub scout badges, a beautifully efficient bit of design by Ellan Parry. James Maloney’s perfectly integrated folk music was central to establishing the atmosphere, and I was pleased to see Tanika Yearwood (who had so little to do in Hamlet) taking centre stage with some beautiful songs as Amiens, two wistful numbers perfect for the picnics that the lords shared on the stage, and for the sad tone of Jaques’ seven ages speech. Yearwood later appeared as an outrageous Hymen, dressed as a bride with enormous multi-coloured train from under which Celia and Rosalind emerged; Yearwood was subsequently hoisted up into the gods, her train filling the stage with colour before falling to the floor (and Jaques later dug out and pocketed a pair of pink frilly knickers that had apparently fallen with it).
The rest of the production was a near-relentless series of setpieces, all showing off the comic timing of the ensemble. Hurley was an excellent Touchstone, with doublet and hose made of ties and foam bands, and a bicycle horn with which he punctuated his own jokes. His joking had an interestingly aggressive tone at times – most obviously with William – but for the most part he was harmless, and Catrin Aaron’s Welsh Corin seemed happy to exchange pleasantries with him over court manners. Touchstone became most outrageous when paired with Garnon’s Audrey, though. Enormously bewigged and bosomed, Audrey strode through the play with a devil-may-care attitude that extended all the way to the curtain call, where she barely deigned to gesture at the audience. She gave the lie to her own feigned innocence as she toyed with a straw in her mouth, and after William ran away she snogged Touchstone and scooped him up into her arms, carrying him out for his reward.
Silvius and Phoebe, doubled by Katz and Aaron, had surprisingly emotional impact here. While Silvius began as ridiculous, carrying around a mini-trombone with which he steered his sheep, Katz imbued him with an honest sadness that Rosalind quickly warmed to. Aaron, meanwhile, played Phoebe as a fiercely independent woman who took no particular pleasure in rebuffing Silvius and was alert enough to the ambiguities in Rosalind’s pronouncements to be cautious in the pleasure she took at apparent promises; when she realised the trick at the end, she accepted it with good grace, and seemed happy enough to be finally paired with Silvius.
The wild card was Pearce Quigley’s Jaques, in a role the actor was born to play. Quigley’s ironic, detached delivery always sounds like it shouldn’t work, yet always fits the clown roles, and Jaques became a wry observer who enjoyed tormenting his auditors, as when borrowing Touchstone’s horn to tediously sound out the hours of the clock, or lazily dismissing Orlando. There were moments of obvious metatheatrical zaniness – including his yelp of shock as, after reciting ‘Ducdame’, he suddenly saw the entire audience of the Globe and realised his invocation to call fools into a circle had worked; and when corrected on the pronunciation of his closing ‘cave’ (to rhyme with ‘have’), he roared as he departed ‘it’s an exit line, it has to rhyme!’. But Quigley’s detachment also meant that when he aimed for pathos, his words had all the more impact. The ‘seven ages’ was a case in point, beginning with him pretending to deliver a baby from between the legs of one of the lords and then casually tossing the imagined infant into the audience; but by the end of the speech his voice was breaking into sobs as he was overcome by his own description of death. Later, as the lords wrestled an enormous puppet deer to the ground and began an agressive hunting anthem, Jaques tore off his jacket and blundered offstage, overcome by the violence.
When Laskey turned to address the audience in a break in the final jig, his ‘if’ got the biggest laugh. But (without wanting to make too trite a point), the importance of this production was in its constant and playful explorations of ‘if’. The improvisatory feel to many of the scenes – again, most notably, Audrey and Touchstone bantering with the BSL interpreter, but also Schlesinger’s wild-eyed Sir Oliver Martext, or Nadarajah’s free translation and interruption, or the sheer unbridled joy taken by the whole ensemble in the frankly unbelievable outfit of Hymen – gave the impression of an unusual amount of onstage control, the ensemble giving a wonderful performance of responding in the moment to the audience and, more importantly, to each other. I don’t think that the Globe ensemble heralds the death of the director (indeed, I’d love to know more about Federay Holmes and Elle While’s roles), but it does place a huge amount of faith in the ownership of the stage by talented, trained, and genuinely collaborative actors. Please get the band back together next year.