May 19, 2022, by Peter Kirwan
As You Like It (Northern Broadsides) @ Leeds Playhouse
‘Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons’, announced Rosalind (EM Williams), pausing pointedly on the word ‘diverse’. The emphasis on diversity in relation to time aligned with designer E. M. Parry’s interest in the programme note on queer time in the forest. Parry explains that their interest is in ‘disrupting the normative impositions of linear constructed time, and in so doing, to reveal or recover a queerness that is often lost, ignored or deliberately erased in the historical record’. Playfully, Joe Morrow – half in and half out of character as Touchstone at the end of the interval, bantering with the audience – joked about the lack of a clear setting for Northern Broadsides’ production, but this was key to the production’s destabilising of norms and hierarchies. Putting a headscarf on Williams/Rosalind, he joked that they were Thelma and Louise. Williams’s coy ‘what’s Thelma and Louise?’ was countered by Touchstone’s realisation that neither of them could know what a film was, at least for another few centuries. Not that that matters.
In a production interested in thoroughly exploring different notions of queerness – from queer time to non-binary identities, from different kinds of romantic expression to reversals of spatial hierarchies – Touchstone served as ringmaster for an exploration of camp that illustrates much of the potential of camp Shakespeare as explored by Emer McHugh, Louise Geddes and others. Morrow is a cabaret performer, but situated within the text of As You Like It, the cabaret performer was reinvented as Dame. Similar to Nottingham Playhouse’s definitive Dame, John Elkington, Morrow used a mix of improvisation, planned corpsing and wry asides to the audience to create a camp, slanted commentary on the production, often taking over the scene entirely to take other cast members to task on their footwork or tardiness on getting to the stage. The Dame in pantomime is the watchkeeper of queer time, navigating a production’s oscillation between the linear demands of narrative and the interrupted time of audience engagement, and the gently anarchic performance energised this As You Like It.
If there’s no clock in the forest, then there is a clock in the court. Duke Frederick (understudy Robin Simpson doing standout work) presided over a court that was not exactly rigid in its patriarchal, heteronormative structures, but which at the very least managed its performances carefully. The production opened with the defiantly masculine Orlando (Shaban Dar) shadow-boxing in preparation for his fight, while brother Oliver (Reuben Johnson) dressed to impress. The actual fight itself was a carnivalesque spectacle, presided over by Morrow’s Touchstone in full drag, announcing it as a televised wrestling bout. ‘Chainsaw Charles’ (Bailey Brook) mimed revving his chainsaw, while the femme Rosalind and Celia (Isobel Coward) danced in sync behind him; and Rosalind and Celia’s pleas to Orlando to desist were delivered into microphones, as part of the performance of mercy designed to bolster Charles’s expected win. Orlando’s triumph in the ring was a validation of Duke Frederick’s would-be masculinist court, in which women took on supportive roles that helped bolster the central performance.
But Rosalind and Celia, right from the start, resisted these roles. Celia wore scruffy masc attire – untucked shirt, trousers and jacket, coding her as queer. Rosalind, meanwhile, gave a camp hyper-femme performance as Rosalind when flirting with Orlando, as if to counter his display of hypermasculinity in the wrestling. She was coy, sexy, turning away then turning her head back to beckon huskily to him, and then laughing nervously when embarrassed by Celia. But back in their private rooms, a servant pulled off Rosalind’s stiletto heels and elaborate hold-ups, and Rosalind took off her long black wig to reveal skull cap. The two of them stripped down to bras just before Duke Frederick burst in on them, and Frederick’s anger at Rosalind’s influence over Celia seemed at least in part to be related to Celia’s own queer gender expression. As such, the production made even more sense of their decision to take the similarly queer Touchstone with them, rescuing all of them from a court hostile to those uninterested in conforming.
In the forest, Parry’s costume design came to the fore as the production’s conceptual dressing box. Clothes hung over the stage as the tree canopy; coat-stands of increasing size and robustness took the place of trees. Costume was chaotic and joyful. Touchstone went through several glamorous transformations, from cowboy to dancing queen; Audrey (Terri Jade Donovan) wore a mish-mash of items over a pregnant belly that itself seemed to increase in size as the seasons passed; and Duke Senior’s (Simpson again) court wore a mix of historical pieces from late Victorian to the present as they shifted from the freezing winter of the earlier forest scenes to high summer by production’s end. The forest folk often wore more practical clothes – Corin (Claire Hackett) a Yorkshire farmer’s garb, Silvius (Brook) simple men’s clothes, and Phoebe (Gemma Dobson) first appeared straight from delivering a calf wearing bloodied transparent gloves and a splatter apron. But as the production developed, the whole company’s costumes began developing in queered ways, with most wearing a variety of men’s and women’s items; rehearsal skirts; or otherwise incongruous items.
The production was driven by Williams’s Rosalind, who went through a process of discovery. Williams wore what looked like a kind of binder that didn’t meet in the middle of their chest, allowing them to walk around bare-chested as Ganymede for most of the production. As with Maria Aberg’s brilliant RSC production from a few years back, this meant that ‘Ganymede’ wore fewer clothes than ‘Rosalind’ – that is, Ganymede manifested as the revelation of Rosalind, rather than a disguise put on over Rosalind. Moving to the forest meant making Williams’s own non-binary presentation visible, and as such the process of becoming Ganymede became a process of becoming more comfortable in their own body. The wooing scenes felt more important in this respect for Rosalind than for Orlando, a process of becoming the Ganymede who Rosalind would continue to be. This led to the unusual but revelatory choice in the final revelation: Rosalind walked in wearing wig and dress as Rosalind, then immediately took off the wig to revert to Ganymede. The shock, in this sense, was not that Ganymede was secretly Rosalind; rather, it was the revelation that Rosalind had become Ganymede, and that there would now be no going back. In this sense, As You Like It became a narrative about transition, acceptance, found family, and queer love.
Not every decision related to this worked. The biggest sour note was Phoebe’s response to the revelation of Ganymede’s/Rosalind’s truth. Phoebe’s immediate rejection of Rosalind on discovering that Ganymede had been Rosalind was played for laughs, but felt TERFy – Ganymede still presented in the same form that Phoebe had fallen for, only now Phoebe knew (or thought she knew) something different about what lay beneath. Phoebe’s rejection of Ganymede thus suggested at least one form of intolerance in this queer utopia, even if she then ended up swapping partners after the wedding with Touchstone, running off giggling with Audrey to bed while Silvius and Touchstone walked off grabbing one another’s arses. More difficult to parse was the role of Jacques (Adam Kashmiry) throughout the production. Jacques served as a kind of conscientious objector to the whole thing, but his weirdly intense performance was so quiet that he tended to fade into the background of any scene he was in, and so growlingly intense that the potential humour of his interrogations of others was muted. In a dream sequence while Celia slept, Jacques emerged as the topless Lord of the Hunt, presiding Pan-like over a fantasia in which Rosalind and Celia hooked up with Orlando and Oliver while the sounds of the hunt blared out, awakening everyone’s animal instincts. But at the production’s close, Jacques threw off the dress he had donned for the wedding and sauntered out. Compared to the relative coherence of the rest of Laurie Sansom’s production, Jacques felt poorly thought-through, as a half-hearted setting of ‘All the world’s a stage’ to members of Duke Senior’s court acting out representations of the seven acts exemplified.
There were gestures towards the potential dangers of the forest. The shivering cold of the initial forest arrival (reminiscent of Michael Boyd’s unusually harsh production) informed the violence with which Orlando encountered Duke Senior’s court, holding a knife to Jacques’ throat. Orlando’s elderly servant Ada (Hackett) died quietly on a bench, mourned only briefly by Orlando and Jacques. And Duke Senior certainly didn’t seem thoroughly enlightened; even at the end of the play, his promise to share our returned fortune with everyone ‘According to the measure of their states’ pointedly excluded Silvius and Phoebe, the latter of whom was particularly unimpressed. And in an otherwise comic sequence, William (Jo Patmore), who turned up wearing a ludicrously oversized puffer jacket, was a quietly aggressive figure who bore Touchstone’s insults stolidly, then made a gesture as if to punch the terrified clown before laughing and sauntering off. The implication here was that William was the father of Audrey’s unborn child, and was quite happy to relinquish any responsibilities he might have.
Otherwise, though, the forest was a place of fun. Celia and Rosalind in particular were near constantly delighted, with a wicked sense of humour and a pleasure in gently mocking others that cemented their bond when in Duke Frederick’s court together, and which kept them bound in the forest. Celia made no pretence of her immediate attraction to the hunky Oliver, and found clear happiness with him (in the build-up to Rosalind’s revelations of the final scene, Celia was completely oblivious, wrapped around Oliver, until Rosalind beckoned for her to join them). The freedom that people felt to express their love in the forest was winsome – Silvius’s sincere expressions of what it means to love provoked visible emotional responses from Orlando and Phoebe, and Audrey’s unabashed flirtation with Touchstone was a source of immense satisfaction to her. And while most of the soundtrack was pre-recorded, Patmore’s beautifully voiced Amiens gave a couple of lovely numbers on acoustic guitar that rooted the production’s musical aesthetic in English folk – referenced later as Rosalind led the lovers in a dance around a makeshift maypole constructed from a coat-stand.
The production insisted on breaking down boundaries where it could. Touchstone and Audrey’s first wooed one another while tending Audrey’s goats, played by three of the company, who repeatedly broke out of their makeshift pen and started hassling the audience (in a great moment, Audrey whistled and the three goats instantly flipped onto their backs, their slippered feet in the air). Later, Touchstone and Audrey set the goats on the hapless Oliver Martext, snapping at his heels as he fled the stage. And when a waggish audience member accused Touchstone of breaking the fourth wall, Touchstone screamed in protest, waving his hands around to demonstrate that there was, in fact, no fourth wall. As part of the production’s queer time, the audience were immediately implicated in the concurrent time scheme of the 2 hour 45 minute performance, even while the seasons of Arden turned more quickly.
Williams’s winsome epilogue, delivered by a non-binary actor playing a character who had transitioned and whose gender indeterminacy was part and parcel of Arden’s queer spacetime, offered a spot-on embodiment of Touchstone’s ‘if – the only peacemaker’. The conditionality of Williams’s own uses of ‘if’ – ‘If I were a woman’ – were accompanied by knowing glances and finger-wagging at the audience, Williams playfully but significantly reminding us of the production’s insistence on the destabilisation of fixed knowledge. ‘If’, for this production, was the watchword for an ethos of camp performance in a queer performance; the embrace of ‘if’ was what enabled transition, what broke down fixed identities, what created happiness. The only peacemaker, indeed, and the peace of this production was of its own making.
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