FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Elle While and Federay Holmes in a collaborative process involving all twelve-strong cast, this is a non-conceptual ground-zero reading. Ellan Parry creates an array of costumery and stage props like the Warhorse-looking deer crafted out of bits of string and canvas pulled by hunters. Composer Phil Hopkins leads with keyboards but it’s his percussion, bass trombone, guitars and sax that lend a dark sonance.
Jack Laskey’s Rosalind borrows his ruff from the Rosalind he played Orlando against in the Globe’s 2009 production – the one directed by Thea Shurrock you can buy on DVD. That sums up this As You Like It. Something borrowed, something new. Part gender-reversed, actors combining their clothes with Globe storage, upcycled and new-wrought garments altogether. Rosalind and Celia start off in glorious Elizebethan rig – though Rosalind can’t avoid looking Orlando-ish when essaying Ganymede in trainers.
It’s how 1599 operated, in this ‘starting with nothing’ approach to As You Like It and the Hamlet the same twelve-strong company alternate with: a world of spontaneous reactions to daily circumstances making each performance even more creative than usual. There’s a skin less, a stitch fewer to hide behind. Scary and invigorating.
So much so, that Elle While and Federay Holmes aren’t listed as directors: you have to look for them. There is though more than a collaborative process, a guiding like the Warhorse-looking deer crafted out of bits of string and canvas pulled by hunters and then plangently collapsing on the otherwise bare stage the equally elusive Ellan Parry creates. That’s a place full of fast-moving props and fluid scenes where bare pillars and groundlings serve as receptacles of sonnets; they’re the most stagey thing here. No greenery, no grand platforming into the groundlings. Just us… and us.
These binaries operate in language too in a play of violent exile, mistaken identity and gender-kerning. We’re used to ad-libs but receive them industrially here. Or gags like Jacques who’s already munching a banana when Bettrys Jones’ Orlando launches sword-starving into the rustic court. Though Duke Senior swears no-one eats till fainting Adam does, Jacques bites off his banana and playfully repeats key words.
There is though a rhythm and point to this fairly full though judiciously cut performance – it lasts two hours forty-five. Composer Phil Hopkins leads with keyboards but it’s his percussion, bass trombone, guitars and sax that lend a dark sonance, a braying ceremonial both to wrestling and earthy music punctuating a lividly bare festival. It’s joyous, graunchy, raunchy and punctured with cheers. A wildly enthusiastic audience is swept up and it’s impossible not to take account of that.
Not all the language is spoken either. Celia’s Nadia Nadarajh uses British Sign Language, though occasionally speaks. It means Laskey has to repeat some of her speeches as interpreter and we lose their verbal badinage. Nadarajh though is supremely expressive and very funny: she has the audience gasping and waiting to laugh again at what she refracts through the magnificent thickets of language she signs to an audience who can’t possibly get it all, but somehow guess, replete with furious flings and playful spasms.
Still, the production has to live along the erotic tension between Jones and Laskey’s pair. If Laskey’s Rosalind is to tower in the role – Shakespeare tell us Rosalind’s very tall, and she’s given the tallest stack of speeches – Laskey has to convince us vocally. He revels in his reversal, and it’s a fine conceit, especially when Jones confesses Rosalind is up to her heart then indicates somewhere above her head. There’s a smack of Orlando still, but emotion and fluid caprice too.
Laskey in fact plays Rosalind straight – gender-blind here has meant there’s no gay dynamic and with Jones’ vehemence and Spitfire ferocity at times, there’s enough tension, and Jones looks as vulnerable as any Orlando when Laskey accepts a tardy-arriving rose then dashes it to the ground. A sigh goes round the wooden O. Laskey’s particularly strong on Rosalind’s innate regality, and even if when he says ‘know you not I am a woman?’ to laughter the following ‘when I think I must speak’ rings out true.
Jones picks up Orlando’s unfixed nature: valiant in overthrowing the towering Richard Katz as Charles (he’s later a hapless Sylvius) in a delicious sparring when she brings him down pick-a-back style; but hangdog and howling silently whether Jacques or Rosalind is near. In other words this quietly revolutionary production is otherwise free of device and gives us a rather fine – and very fresh – traditional reading.
Pearce Quigley’s grave Jacques despite mild japing is a saturnine Mercury subdued, iron hair streaming down like time. Vocally he never indulges gimmicks though its his sotto voce quicksilver one remembers more than set speeches. His Seven Ages though is a munch-through of some magnificence.
Catrin Aaron makes a warm Phoebe (and her acceptance of Sylvius is unusually kept in, winningly) as well as a knowing Corin. James Garnon’s towering Audrey has enormous fun carrying off Colin Hurley’s Touchstone at the end of the first half at 3.3. Hurley’s a ringing-toned Touchstone, gnarled in the world as much as Jacques though making something happier of himself. Garnon manages pert and ‘foulness’ with the aplomb of someone carrying off the prize.
Shubham Saraf’s Oliver plays coward when Jones fights back and softens with touching remorse: nicely enough for Celia to fall for him in a chatter of glances. Helen Schlesinger in this production though relishes the laughs she elicits for calmly turning coats from Duke to Senior to Duke Frederick and back, with harsh and gentle voice gleefully alternating.
Michelle Terry confines herself to a strong-minded – and helmeted – Adam, a meltingly sad William in Act V (Hurley regaining the menace he lost when borne off by Garnon); and a preppy middle son Jacques de Boys on cue with the denouement.
One spectacular appearance is Tanika Yearwood’s trio of singing roles, as Le Beau and Amiens, court and forest courtiers who sing; and as Hymen. Yearwood’s mellow mezzo melds with the instruments lending a burr to her operatic projection, riffed through with jazz, another of Hopkins’ idioms. A huge dress enwrought with flowers and much else billows round her – as Celia and Rosalind emerge. Then there’s a sudden elevation. Enough spoilers. You’ll have to see it.
This As You Like It isn’t at first take different to other productions, save for its casting. There’s a gentleness, a joyousness, a lack of snarl that some find, wholly and thankfully absent here. But underneath there’s a ripping discovery, a spontaneity and transparent skin to the process that makes this thrilling, and truly radical: returning us perhaps to an original Globe spirit. An As You Like It for the moment, certainly. But a moment of change.