FringeReview UK 2019
This second iteration of 2018’s As You like It is again directed by Elle While and Federay Holmes in a collaborative process involving all twelve-strong cast, this is a non-conceptual ground-zero reading. E. M. 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 James Maloney’s new score directed by Louise Anan Duggan on percussion with Becky Browne’s percussion, also features bass trombone, guitars and sax that lend a more shimmery clamour to the dark sonance of last year’s score by Phil Hopkins. Megan Cassidy co-ordinates the wardrobe’s multiple sourcing, with Claire Strickland’s millinery, Pam Humpage’s wigs. Flying (for Hymen) is engineered by Jez Wingham, fight direction by Yarit Dor, overall choreography by Sian Williams.
It’s back. As in last year’s production this new iteration of 2018’s As You Like It finds us stopping all clocks and assumptions to enter Arden. With fresh tenderness in the largely-new cast, there’s heart-stopping moments – for instance as two actors sign to each other. Even if you think you’ve seen it before, come back.
Jack Laskey’s Rosalind still borrows his ruff from Naomi Frederick’s Rosalind whom he played Orlando against in the Globe’s 2009 production: the one directed by Thea Shurrock you can buy on DVD. That still sums up this As You Like It. Something borrowed, something new. Gender-fluid actors combine their own clothes with Globe storage, upcycled and new-wrought garments altogether.
Rosalind and Celia start off in glorious white-backed Elizebethan rig – and because Rosalind can’t avoid looking Orlando-ish when essaying Ganymede in trainers Laskey makes a touching virtue of it. Rosalind tell us she’s (like Helena) something of a maypole, so ‘how many fathoms deep I am in love’ rightly gets a wheeling semaphore, let alone sign treatment from Laskey.
It’s how 1599 operated, and as designer E.M. Parry points out it’s not only ghosts of previous productions but last year’s ‘starting with nothing’ approach to As You Like It the twelve-strong company come out from: a world of spontaneous daily reactions. There’s still a skin less, a stitch fewer to hide behind. Scary and invigorating.
Directors Elle While and Federay Holmes guide it like the Warhorse-looking deer crafted out of bits of string and canvas pulled by hunters which plangently collapses on the otherwise bare stage 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 but transforming exile, mistaken identity, gender-kerning. We’re used to ad-libs but receive them industrially here. Gags like James Garnon’s Touchstone bearding a bearded audience member with seven degrees ‘the lie circumstantial’ reanimates a speech that’s often cut. Indeed he tricks it out more flamboyantly than Jaques’ Seven Ages.
There is though a rhythm and point to this fairly full, judiciously cut performance – it lasts two hours forty-five. Composer James Maloney’s new score directed by Louise Anan Duggan on percussion also features bass trombone, guitars and sax that lend a more shimmery clamour to the dark sonance of last year’s score. Ceremonials are joyous, graunchy, raunchy, punctured with cheers. A wildly enthusiastic audience is swept up.
More language is signed this year too. Celia’s Nadia Nadarajh uses British Sign Language, though occasionally speaks; Sophie Stone’s Jaques does the opposite. Laskey repeats some of Nadarajh’s speeches as interpreter so we lose only verbal badinage – emphatically not badinage itself. Nadarajh is supremely expressive, very funny, more than a foil for Laskey: she has the audience gasping and waiting to laugh again at what she refracts through magnificent thickets of language she signs to an audience who can’t possibly get it all, but do, replete with flings and playful spasms.
Still, the production has to live along the erotic tension between Bettrys Jones and Laskey’s pair. If Laskey’s Rosalind is to tower in the role – she’s given the tallest stack of speeches too – Laskey has to convince vocally. He revels in reversal, and Jones’ energy requites him, confessing Rosalind’s up to her heart then indicates somewhere above her head. Laskey playfully flips over again, carrying Jones offstage in the interval. There’s a smack of Orlando still, but emotion and fluid caprice too.
Laskey in fact plays Rosalind straight – 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 each time at that point. 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 court-role she overthrows Stacey Abalogun’s muscle-rippling Charles – later a strong Phoebe – with a more convincing win this year in Yarit Dor’s fight direction. Foul-prone Abalogun can’t help showing off, almost crushes Orlando but fatally takes time out to strut. Jones is especially strong when hangdog and howling silently whether Jaques or Rosalind is near.
Stone’s grave black-suited Jaques despite mild japing is a wit apart. Vocally she suggests she’s already at odds with Arden or court, stands at an odd angle to the universe. Her Seven Ages though is a sign-through as well as speech of depth truncated with sputtering silence. This year the silences tell more.
Abalogun’s Phoebe warmly accepts Sylvius after sharp exchanges, as well as affectingly pining for Ganymede; and is fantastically tricked in one of the finest costumes. This year’s Audrey, Scott Brooksbank, has enormous fun carrying off last year’s Audrey, Garnon’s Touchstone at the end of the first half at 3.3. Garnon’s a yodel-toned Touchstone, gnarled in the world as much as Jaques though making something happier of himself. Brooksbank manages pert and ‘foulness’ with the aplomb of someone carrying off the prize. As Corin he’s another spar for Garnon: they’re joined at the quip. That doesn’t stop Garnon’s Touchstone loading Corin with suitcases the moment the gazumping cottage purchase is agreed.
Peter Bray’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 – quite elaborate – glances. Lily Bevan in this production though relishes the laughs she elicits for calmly turning coats from Duke to Senior to Duke Frederick and back, harsh Franglais accent gleefully alternating with gentle Duke Senior.
Simon Scardfield’s strong-minded – and helmeted – Adam, seems just a bit robust to falter in Jones’ arms in the forest (there’s a nice touch earlier when Jones returns Adam’s money then snatches it back). He brings a thoroughly convincing dignity to Silvius.
Kudzai Sitima’s forlorn William in Act V responds to Garnon’s languid menace though seems more resigned than some. As preppy middle son Jacques de Boys on cue with the denouement, she raises a laugh relaying Duke Frederick’s own resignation.
Tanika Yearwood’s trio of singing roles, as Le Beau and Amiens, court and forest courtiers who sing, concludes spectacularly as Hymen. Yearwood’s mellow mezzo melds with the instruments lending a burr to her operatic projection, riffed through with Maloney’s delicious fuzzy percussion. 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. After all the reality-grounded fantasy, that touch of magic really does seems like a vision of late Shakespeare to come, in this production.
Jaques’ leaving-taking though is a highlight. Stock-still amidst revelry and concluding her speech, Stone signs an affecting farewell to each, particularly Celia and Senior. A profounder melancholy’s struck before the upbeat finale.
This As You Like It exudes even more gentleness, a joyousness, a lack of snarl that some find; this year that’s more pronounced. There’s now a more freewheeling element, energized yet sublimely eddying. Underneath there’s still a ripping discovery, a transparent skin to the process that makes this thrilling: invoking perhaps an original Globe spirit. Laskey, Jones and Nadarajah have made a space for this As You Like It well beyond its initial moment.
If there’s a caveat, it’s that Laskey’s part, whilst written for a late-teen male, is a lot of lines to lose to a male actor. In other words, a decade on from his Orlando it’s delightfully possible for Laskey to take a juvenile lead – and let’s be clear: Laskey’s Rosalind is a major reason to see this production. But could any 2009 Rosalind do the same? It’s a production that quietly raises issues of female agency, and ageism: might gender-fluidity end up working more in favour of men? Yes, there’s Terry’s Hamlet. But it hasn’t come back, whilst this production has. Meanwhile, there’s far more reasons to be merry than sad, and I’ve travelled twice for it too.