June 10, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

As You Like It @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Writing about web page http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theatre/annualtheatreseason/asyoulikeit/

Only a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that As You Like It is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. In no small part, this is due simply to the fact that I’ve seen the play several times, but been distinctly underwhelmed on every occasion. I’m extremely pleased, therefore, to be able to say that I’ve finally seen the proverbial good As You Like It, at Shakespeare’s Globe in Thea Sharrock’s wonderful production.

Greater than the sum of its parts, Sharrock’s simply staged version of the play was by turns hysterically funny and surprisingly moving. Michael Benz’s superlative Silvius was a perfect example of this, amusingly desperate but always sympathetic, his love honest and believable. His answer to the question of what love is, accompanied by some gentle steel drumming, brought a tear to my eye. Benz’s skill appears to be in investing comic characters with humanity, and his Silvius thus became the heart of the scenes in which he appeared.

The play was often re-arranged for dramatic effect, resulting in a fast and coherent text that (dare I say it) felt far better structured than the original, serving in the second half to structure the subplots more effectively around Rosalind and thus strengthen her centrality. The simple removal of 4.2 turned 4.1 and 4.3 into a single continuous scene that allowed Rosalind to deal deftly with Orlando, Silvius and Oliver in turn. Naomi Frederick’s Rosalind was simultaneously shy and confident as Ganymede, expertly following through her plans but yet subject to impulses and doubts. Her disguise was repeatedly betrayed by her high voice, which she reminded herself to lower, and her irrepressible excitement at being around Orlando also threatened to ruin her plans at every turn.

The fact that this Rosalind didn’t always maintain control made her relationship with Jack Laskey’s Orlando uniquely fascinating. After being “married” by Celia, Rosalind surrendered to the moment, leaned in and gave Orlando a lingering kiss. Turning away from him, she giggled to the audience, but failed to see Orlando’s shocked face of recognition – it was at this point that he realised who ‘Ganymede’ really was. With Orlando in on the joke, the remainder of their scenes became a mutual game that placed the two lovers on an equal footing, both enjoying their disguised courtship and teasing the other. This allowed Laskey’s Orlando to become a far more likeable and engaging hero than in any other production I’ve seen, allowing his intelligence and wit to shine through. With Oliver also in on the secret (on picking Rosalind up after her faint, he found himself grabbing her chest), the two brothers played their own jokes: Orlando’s injury by the lion, for example, was a fabrication, and the sling immediately removed when the two brothers were alone together.

As the central relationship was so engaging, there was less pressure to play up the significance of supporting roles, thus freeing other actors to simply enjoy their parts and entertain. This was particularly true of Dominic Rowan’s Touchstone and Tim McMullan’s Jaques, both excellent. Rowan began the play in motley, but for the entire of his time in Arden was actually the smartest character on stage, playing up the character’s intelligent and courtly fooling, and allowing for a repeated joke about him stepping in something unseemly. Rowan played up to the crowd throughout, often rolling his eyes in a plea for sympathy at his having to deal with forest folk. In 3.3, his line “and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling” was spoken in direct reference to a pigeon that had just decided to take off from the stage, bringing sustained applause and Touchstone shouting “It’s in the script!” In terms of the character’s wider importance, however, this Touchstone served as the audience’s most important and constant connection with the play, Rowan deliberately setting the character slightly outside the stage action in order to provided good-humoured criticism of it. By acknowledging the audience as he insulted Audrey, Corin and others, he cast those scenes as entertainments, shared performative jokes.

McMullan’s Jaques, by contrast, was as a character entirely within the world of the play, but yet spent much of his time in the yard with the groundlings. Other reviews have referred to him as “lugubrious”, and there is no better word for McMullan’s performance. Luxurious, lazy and comically detached, Jaques breezed easily around the entire auditorium (even the top galleries as he watched Audrey and Touchstone prepare for their wedding) and commented with good-natured amusement on everything he saw. It’s the kind of performance which can be insufferable, yet McMullan’s ever-present smile betrayed the character’s detachment even from his own opinions. Where other recent Jaques’ have been almost misanthropic, McMullan’s version of the character loved life and loved people, but was simply more interested in the larger questions, his search for “matter”. Everything amused him, whether Touchstone’s antics or his own joke at the audience’s expense that they were the fools who his invocation of “Ducdame” had called into a circle.

Both Touchstone and Jaques were thus free to become uncomplicated entertainers, rather than having to provide “matter”, making the play as a whole an extremely enjoyable experience as one eminently watchable character followed another. However, this shouldn’t imply that the production steered clear of darkness or complication. The opening saw the stage draped heavily in black and the court, in black Jacobean dress, process formally onto the stage. Brendan Hughes’ young Duke Frederick and Jamie Parker’s Oliver provided suitably villainous dominant figures in the play’s early scenes, against which the livelier spirits of Orlando, Rosalind and Celia were strained and compromised. Le Beau, too, became a relatively severe tool of the Duke. In his first appearance, he interrupted a playful scene in which Rosalind and Celia were throwing Touchstone’s coxcomb between them. Le Beau grabbed the coxcomb from mid air and dropped it to the floor, much to Touchstone’s chagrin. In this court, fun was strictly prohibited, and the flight to Arden (for which the black cloths were stripped away to reveal the bare wooden pillars of the Globe) was a liberation.

A bit of early re-cutting provided a more tense build-up to the wrestling scene, by placing Le Beau’s report of the fight before Charles’ meeting with Oliver, meaning that Oliver’s permission for Charles to harm his brother came immediately before the battle itself. For the fight, a ring was created in the pit, allowing the fight to range across the stage and down among the groundlings. Sean Kearns made for a physically imposing Charles, and a genial, earthy Corin, a solid presence throughout.

The production’s small touches were too innumerable to recount here. A goat taunted Touchstone from beneath a trapdoor, poking its head out to bleat at him; Phoebe’s “And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee” was accompanied with an ‘evil eye’ stare in an attempt to put her words into practice; Touchstone’s coxcomb changed costume as he did; printed poems fell from the ceilings and galleries over the audience. The invention was in the small detail rather than sweeping concepts, and the production relied on its relationships between characters and audience rather than on set-pieces. In this, as I began, it was greater than the sum of its parts, the ensemble working to draw the audience into its world and share a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The only awkward note was in the play’s final resolution, which unusually (and bravely) brought on Hymen as a god, a newly-introduced actor rather than Corin or Adam in disguise, coming up through the audience to bless the couples. It brought the play to a somewhat abrupt close, interrupting Rosalind’s conclusion of her plots, presumably explaining why the character is so often cut or reduced in importance. However, Ewart James Walters brought a striking presence to these closing moments and the appearance of Hymen did provide an authoritative finality to the “confusions”. With a jig and a final interruption for Rosalind to deliver an effective and genuinely amusing Epilogue, the best As You Like It I’ve seen yet closed, a triumph for all concerned.

Posted in Theatre review