As part of Michelle Terry’s opening season as the Globe’s new artistic director, she is introducing the Globe Ensemble. They are performing what have been dubbed “sibling plays”, due largely to the fact that they were both written around 1599 (the year the original Globe Theatre opened). One of the two plays is popular comedy As You Like It, which is running in rep with Hamlet. Though two directors (Elle While & Federay Holmes) are named, the Ensemble has taken more creative control in the development of both productions – also taking charge of casting, going down a gender-blind route in both cases.
Rosalind’s father has been banished, usurped by his brother who now has control of the dukedom, but she is allowed to remain at court as she and her cousin Celia have an incredibly close relationship. This situation does not last. However, Celia decides she must go too – and so they flee together in disguise, along with the court jester Touchstone, into the Forest of Arden. At the same time, Orlando also hurriedly leaves court as he tries to escape persecution at the hands of his elder brother. He and Rosalind had briefly met during their time at court and, unknown to one another, fell in love at first sight; Orlando finds the only way of expressing his feelings is by writing poems for her, sticking them to the trees. It’s only a matter of time before they run into each other, though things are made slightly more confusing by Rosalind’s choice of disguise – she’s dressed as a man (Ganymede) with Celia now Aliena, Ganymede’s sister…
It’s not quite as complicated as it sounds! The branches of the story, like those of a tree, are all there as one; they eventually converge and resolve themselves in the traditional manner. It’s a warm & fun piece, ripe for escapism, and full of good old-fashioned entertainment. In what might be seen as a bold move, the central character of Rosalind is being played by a man (Jack Laskey) with a woman (Bettrys Jones) opposite him as Orlando – it may not be quite as seismic a change as transforming Helena into Helenus, but it certainly does give an interesting twist on things. One could argue that it’s taking away one of the great Shakespearean female roles from the women in the company, but with Hamlet being played by AD Michelle Terry, it’s an egalitarian venture that absolutely pays off.
And given the return to authentic practice (good luck if you see a show during air traffic rush hour – I kid you not) I quite like the idea of occasionally getting to see some things onstage which follow in that vein; in Shakespeare’s time a man would have played Rosalind, after all. By also switching the gender of the actor playing Orlando, you maintain the traditional dynamic whilst also bringing out previously unseen aspects of each character’s personality. The height difference between Jones & Laskey of course invites a few visual gags when they are together – and also creates even more of a David & Goliath situation when Orlando is faced with the task of beating Charles the wrestler early on in the play. Jones’ performance is fiery and passionate, with some of that passion transmuting into love for Rosalind.
Laskey has form with As You Like It, having played Orlando in a previous production at the Globe, and takes to Rosalind incredibly naturally. Whilst there are a few knowing glances when Rosalind (or Ganymede) makes reference to her (or ‘his’) gender, the chances are this is exactly the kind of thing that went on during Shakespeare’s time. Aside from those moments, the performance is so believable that you really do pay no attention to whether it is or isn’t a woman standing in front of you – Laskey instils a combination of impetuosity & sensitivity in Rosalind, and never once strays into caricature.
Also part of the company is deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah, taking on the role of Celia in this play. By having her as part of two double acts in these productions it provides a more natural way for someone to occasionally vocalise for her (if you imagine a character in the scene didn’t know sign language, she would need an interpreter), as well as creating even more of a bond between her and her friends – this is heightened between the cousins as Laskey’s Rosalind earnestly signs “inseparable” (two fingers pressed together). It also gives Nadarajah free rein in terms of physical comedy, used to great effect as Celia tries to dissuade Rosalind from her plan to secretly test Orlando’s love for her. Though there are times where it does feel like the action slows a little because lines are effectively repeated, it is largely successful and absolutely shows the potential of this approach.
The lack of a set isn’t an issue, this is also something Elizabethan theatregoers would be familiar with, as it allows the scene transitions to happen in the blink of an eye (this is quite literally the case when the exiled duke’s court transforms into that of the usurper), and costumes bear the weight of visual expectation. I have to say, I don’t quite understand the complete mishmash of styles – either between characters or on a single person. This is where not having a director can have a detrimental effect; choosing a concept and sticking to it provides necessary focus. Though it’s arguably of less consequence in a play such as this, where everything becomes a little jumbled up anyway, it’s worth noting if the Globe Ensemble is to become a fixture.
James Maloney’s wonderful compositions do something to unite proceedings, with themes that immediately signify particular people or places, and an end-of-show jig to die for.
This is exactly the kind of show that was needed to help kickstart the new season at the recently rebranded Globe; bright & joyful, and a real celebration of Shakespeare’s work (without being overly reverential). It’s a definite crowd-pleaser, and an ideal way to spend a sunny afternoon or light summer’s evening.
My verdict? A crowd-pleasing beginning to the new season, with some interesting ideas and considered performances on display – perfect fare for a summer’s day.
As You Like It runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 26 August 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.