Writer: William Shakespeare
Directors: Federay Holmes and Elle White
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
After a major venue such as Shakespeare’s Globe changes its artistic director – and particularly when its last, controversial AD, Emma Rice, had her three-year contract terminated a year early – it is only natural to take the first major productions of the new season as a statement of intent.
In that context, new artistic director Michelle Terry’s intentions seem clear from As You Like It: the emphasis is on the actors. Directors Federay Holmes and Elle White, who are jointly credited with both this production and Hamlet, performed in repertory by the same ensemble, came to the rehearsal process with a completely blank slate, seeking to capture some of the working practices of Shakespeare’s original productions, when his plays would have been fresh to the performers.
The ensemble company also achieves gender parity, the core of twelve actors comprising six men and six women. Such a split requires male characters to be performed by women, just as Shakespeare’s women would originally have been played by men. And given its central plot of gender-switched dressing as the exiled Rosalind assumes the character of male goatherd Ganymede, As You Like It is a canny way to introduce Terry’s goals to her audience.
Before Rosalind’s introduction, though, the concept is first introduced with Bettrys Jones’ Orlando. A diminutive figure against Shubham Saraf’s Oliver, even more so against Richard Katz’s Charles the Wrestler, Jones nevertheless sells the character as a defiant romantic. Similarly, Helen Schlesinger’s dual role as both Duke Frederick and his exiled brother, Duke Senior, feels completely natural.
If anything, the least effective of the gender swapped roles is the one that is most Shakespearean in nature: Jack Laskey’s Rosalind. As a man playing a woman, who then poses as a man, and who then persuades the man she loves to attempt to seduce her disguised male persona as practice for when he is reunited with his female love, it’s a tough role to play for an actor of any gender. Laskey is charismatic, warm and dominates all his scenes, but the nuance required to remind the audience where we are in his character’s gender fluid story sometimes feels a touch absent.
That said, Rosalind’s relationship with her cousin Celia is believable, and enriched by the use of BSL between the pair. Different characters’ interactions with Celia (played by Deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah) are emphasised by their familiarity with sign language: for Rosalind and Celia, their ability to have a conversation with each other in Orlando’s unknowing presence adds further depth to an already believable relationship.
For any Shakespeare comedy, it is the comic side characters that can make or break a show. Holmes and White’s approach seems to work extra well here, keeping the tone light throughout such that the outright comedy moments do not feel jarring or forced. Of particular note is Pearce Quigley’s melancholic Jaques, whose deadpan deconstruction of the play’s absurdities provide some genuine belly laughs.
And while Terry herself is in the ensemble in a range of small roles (keeping her powder dry for the titular performance in Hamlet) it is clearly her vision on stage. Reasserting the primacy of actors, and the role of directors as facilitators, is a laudable aim, and As You Like It demonstrates its effectiveness in creating a satisfying comedy.
Runs until 26th August 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton