As You Like It, directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While for Shakespeare’s Globe (http://www.shakespearesglobe.com). The Globe Theatre, London, 18 July, 2018.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
Michelle Terry began her tenure as Artistic Director for Shakespeare’s Globe by returning to The Globe’s 1599 roots in As You Like It and Hamlet. The Globe’s beautiful bare stage was featured in both productions, allowing the living, breathing bodies of the actors to utilize the space creatively and focusing the audience on the story and the characters. In a programme note, Terry compares the “ensemble approach” used in rehearsing the plays to the shareholder status of many of the players in 1599, where members of the company had a “vested interest”, “ownership”, and even an “egalitarian stake” in the success of the enterprise. In As You Like It, directed by Elle While and Federay Holmes, the success of Terry’s approach is clear. The ensemble creatively but respectfully interpreted Shakespeare’s text—even the odd, confusing, and less “comic” passages—resulting in a breathtaking production that will be remembered for years to come for its innovative and diverse casting, radiant performances, and overall excellent quality.
As You Like It is not as often played as some of the most popular comedies, but it is a staple of professional companies, who often use the play to showcase an actress in Shakespeare’s largest female part, Rosalind. In Shakespeare’s day, of course, the part would have been played by a boy, perhaps the same tall boy who had cut his teeth on roles like Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing: after all, Rosalind describes herself as “more than common tall.” In this production, the casting of Jack Laskey—simultaneously hilarious, endearing, and utterly believable in As You Like It’s leading role—lends a smack of authenticity to Rosalind’s playful line “if I were a woman” in the epilogue. More importantly, since this play showcases Shakespeare’s profoundest experimentation with gender bending—he wrote the part of Rosalind for a boy who plays a woman who disguises herself as a young man who quickly arranges to “pretend” to be a young man’s female love interest—all those ironies and confusions (and perhaps more, as many other roles are played by actors of a different gender from their characters) are preserved in what Will Tosh’s excellent programme essay terms “Shakespeare’s queerest comedy.” One more bit of metatheatrical irony: Laskey’s Rosalind, when disguised as her male alter ego “Gannymede”, wears a costume piece created for Laskey as Orlando in The Globe’s 2009 production of the play.
As You Like It’s title perhaps indicates that Shakespeare wrote the play wholly to suit audience tastes, and some of the comic elements are indeed, to use Rosalind’s phrase, “laid on with a trowel”: the fraternal reconciliation extends not just to one pair, but to both pairs of feuding brothers—and even to a third (completely forgotten and extraneous) Dubois brother. Moreover, Hymen, god of marriage, descends from (or, in this production, ascends into) the Heavens to bless the marriages of no fewer than four couples. Nevertheless, as is typical for Shakespeare, the comedy gets very serious at times. In the immediate action that begins this production, the sibling rivalry between brothers Oliver (Shubham Saraf) and Orlando Dubois (Bettrys Jones) is not just fun and games: the two fight rather viciously within a few moments of being on stage together; soon enough, Saraf’s Oliver fiercely instructs the wrestler Charles (Richard Katz), “I had as lief you did break his neck as his finger.”
The leading women of the play are also quickly caught up in the play’s political difficulties. In this production, deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah plays Celia as not just Rosalind’s cousin, but her best friend. The two speak frankly and intimately, using elements of British Sign Language (BSL) to trade quips on life and love—and especially the excellencies of Orlando—in a playful manner. But when the evil Duke Frederick (Helen Schlesinger, who doubles as Frederick’s brother, the good Duke Senior) banishes his niece Rosalind and threatens her with death, Celia quickly comes to Rosalind’s defense. Since Schlesinger as Frederick refuses to communicate in BSL, Nadarajah as Celia is forced to use her voice and speak aloud in the unexpectedly moving line, “Dear sovereign, hear me speak.” As Celia continues, “I cannot live out of her company” (quite believably, since Rosalind was her link to communicating with society) the extreme vulnerability of the character—not to mention the actor— immediately silenced the audience and stirred feelings of awe in the third scene of this festive comedy. The synergy of the casting, the acting, the direction, and the text resulted in an unforgettable theatrical moment.
Terry, who collected raves in Hamlet’s title role, ends up playing three minor roles in this production: old Adam, played with understated grace, the third Dubois brother, played with self-conscious irony, and William. The (usually) forgettable William, erstwhile suitor of country lass Audrey (an exuberant mixture of blasé and risqué features, as embodied by James Garnon) was imbued with a quiet dignity and earnestness that evoked pathos from the audience even during a remarkably funny scene. Not many productions of As You Like It could elicit sighs of pity and uproarious laughter from the audience simultaneously, but this one did.
To note a few less successful moments, the music, credited to composer James Maloney, was a bit mixed: the first two well-known songs in the play, “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”, lacked melodic and rhythmic interest. These shortcomings, however, were more than made up for in “There Was a Lover and His Lass” and, especially, a spirited chant for “What Shall He Have that Killed the Deer?”, the tune of which was reprised for a supremely energetic final jig (including impressive capers from Saraf) that had the entire theatre clapping along enthusiastically. One more quibble: despite a superlative performance from Saraf, Rosalind makes clear that when Oliver and Celia first encounter each other, they “no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved”; Saraf could have played this action a bit more.
Despite any cavils from this extremely picky reviewer, the production was stunning, the best As You Like It I have ever seen or, I am quite sure, will ever see. Allowing dramatic and poignant moments to set off the overriding jubilation of the play’s comic structure, the performance left theatregoers blissfully satisfied—and yet willing and able to see the production repeatedly. Most people I chatted with in the groundlings queue for my third helping of this comic feast had already seen the play at least once before. Terry’s approach in this play, as well as in Hamlet, has included flexible blocking, allowing actors (most notably Schlesinger) to experiment with and develop new reactions during the run, making repeat visits all the more rewarding. The Globe has been through some controversy and hard times lately, but the energy this summer has been palpable, and, with most productions of the Shakespeare plays in the repertory sold out weeks in advance, the success of Michelle Terry’s first season is undeniable. I hope to review many more productions that include Terry’s brilliant acting, daring casting, and ensemble approach in the coming years. Bravo.
This review incorporates ideas and observations from members of the class “Shakespeare: Page and Stage” taught by the author in the summer of 2018, in particular Lance Bleakney, Emma Darby, and Tré McLeod.
 As You Like It is universally dated to 1599, and Jaques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue is understood to correlate to The Globe’s legendary motto, “Totus mundus agit histrionem.” The dating of Hamlet is more difficult. The text probably dates from 1600 (see Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, entry no. 1259). Many believe that Shakespeare was working on the play in 1599, a possibility that Andrew Gurr discussed with the author in 2003; perhaps he discussed the idea with Terry as well. By the way, it was nice to see Gurr’s name again listed in the programme as a member of The Shakespeare Globe Council.