As You Like It is a shrewd choice of play for the first season of the new regime at the Globe and will doubtless go down well with audiences across the summer; but it lacks a governing vision that unites and compels our attention over and above the exciting individual incidents along the way.
An ensemble of twelve actors has rehearsed this new production in parallel with their new version of Hamlet. While directors are listed for both shows this represents an abrupt turn-around from the concept-driven work of Emma Rice, and one that has mixed results. Those responsible deny that this is a return to ‘actors’ theatre’; but the stress on returning to the resources and rehearsal patterns available to the first casts that performed at The Globe must mean that the role of the directors is drastically reduced.
There are plenty of local advantages to this strategy: by involving actors specifically in the more technical aspects of costume and lighting and design you create a company that is very much at ease at the start of the run, both with each other and all the contributions of the creative team. But it also tends to mean that there is more of a local focus than an overall direction – each scene taken on its own terms is richly detailed from the perspective of those involved, but we miss the big picture in a number of key ways. For example, there is little effort to evoke the ethos of the Forest of Arden and the complicated set of contrasts Shakespeare sets up with the worldly court society beyond.
A more positive example which crystallises this issue is a memorable insertion of a scene involving the hunting and slaughter of a deer, in which mime, simply assembled props and thunderous music create a powerful and economical tableau involving most of the cast – but it remains a local effect, and not one that echoes through the production more meaningfully.
The first half sprawls without dramatic urgency, but the second is much tighter once the key relationships are established and the actors feel free to play and relax into the roles. The set pieces are done exceptionally well, where the discipline of avoiding modern theatrical equipment compels the cast and creatives to come up with effects that are still special and spectacular without going beyond traditional devices – no more is this true than in the wedding scene, which is charming and delightful.
The usual strengths of The Globe are in evidence. The whirl of concealed identities gives plenty of scope for the visual humour and slapstick that works so well on this huge stage. Moreover, the extensive creative team ensures that the dancing, fights and overall invention of movement are carried off with flair and ease even by those less naturally mobile members of the cast.
The wardrobe offers an eclectic combination of period and modern dress but it all seems to be thought-through carefully, not least the neat device of having the members of each court simply reverse their outer garments when the scene switches from Duke Frederick’s retinue to the greenwood of Arden.
Given the confusions over identity that lie at the heart of the play’s meaning the decision to offer gender-blind casting across the company causes no disruption to expectations or additional confusions of interpretation. However, the decision to cast a Deaf actor as Celia is less dramatically convincing. It needs to be said that this is no criticism of Nadia Nadarajah, whose characterisation of the role has real energy and personality, and whose specially adapted sign-language is both expressive and wholly in tone with the piece. However, the dramatic pace slackens inevitably, and especially in the first half, as the actors focus more on getting meaning across than on the light and shade of what should be quicksilver exchanges.
With such a well-integrated cast it is no surprise that there are few weak links on view, and no grandstanding by individuals: we have genuine ensemble acting here. However, there are some standout performances that do deserve a highlight. The crucial pairing of Orlando (Bettrys Jones) and Rosalind (Jack Laskey) works very well, with the wooing scenes having just the right level of edge and energy.
Pearce Quigley is a very laidback Jaques, but with excellent, deadpan comic timing and a knack of finding a new offbeat way of presenting his very familiar text. Helen Schlesinger brings a natural swagger and authority to the two Dukes, and Catrin Aaron and Michelle Terry find a lot more than usual in a sequence of minor roles that in other hands might overstay their welcome.
Among the more knockabout roles Colin Hurley finds the right balance between comic drollery and wan pathos as Touchstone, and James Garnon, a regular at The Globe, offers a tarty comic turn as Audrey that stays just on the right side of caricature. Most of the songs are delivered by Tanika Yearwood with a rich, velvety tone that fills the space credibly, though her handling of the text in a range of minor roles is less assured.
The musicians deserve a special mention in this production. Musical director Phil Hopkins on percussion leads a brassy, but also – when it needs to be – poignant ensemble with especially fine contributions from Richard Henry on trombone and Dai Pritchard on clarinet and a range of wind instruments. James Maloney’s music, with period and jazzy inflections, does more than any other aspect of this production to generate the rough music of the Forest in all its shifting moods.
This is undeniably a shrewd choice of play for the first season of the new regime and will doubtless go down well with audiences across the summer; but it lacks a governing vision that unites and compels our attention over and above the exciting individual incidents along the way.