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Review: The Globe production of ‘As You Like It’ (***)

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The Globe’s production of As You Like It is available:
– For streaming by The Globe Player  (£4 /~ $6)
– For streaming by DigitalTheatre.com (£3 / ~$5 )
– As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for  £16.06 and from Amazon.com  for $18.88
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.

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Our Bottom Line:

Overall, a mixed bag. Some very good performances, and very effective use of the unique space in the Globe. I imagine being there live would have been great fun, with the actors appearing all around you and so often mocking the audience and picking on groundlings to demonstrate points. Sadly, though, in the one area that can make or break a production of the play, this one was rather let down.

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Our Review (***)

As You Like It is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, and after seeing two different RSC productions of it in the last few years, I was excited to see how the Globe’s very different approach worked with the play. We open on a sombre, very bare looking stage- rather unexpected for a comedy. The whole of the back of the stage, apart from an archway at either side, is covered in sheets of black fabric, as are the two pillars at the front of the stage and the narrower ones that have been erected for this production. The stage is entirely empty, although a curved extension juts further forward into the audience. From the centre of this wide steps lead down into the pit and two platforms lead out to the edge of the theatre.

The austere setting makes a fitting backdrop to what is quite a dark first act. Shakespeare’s script opens with a young man, Orlando, telling the old servant, Adam, about his older brother’s treatment of him. In this production we get a sort of prologue, where we see the new Duke, Frederick, being crowned, accompanied by sombre drums and a retinue of servants dressed in yet more black. Nobody looks particularly happy about this turn of events, except the new Duke, who turns to the audience with a subtly self-satisfied smile, before sweeping down the stairs and off through the audience. The fight in the next scene between Orlando and his brother Oliver, while met with laughter from the audience, is played seriously, with cries of genuine-sounding pain coming from Oliver and furious yells from Orlando. The laughter seems to be more due to the audience’s fear of being crushed by a flying actor than because the scene is funny. Later, as the Duke questions Oliver for news of his daughter’s whereabouts, Oliver wears a heavily blood-stained shirt, and sobs through the scene, very strongly suggesting that he’s been tortured. This production is definitely not afraid to explore the darker side of the comedy.

Rosalind and Celia in the forest

Rosalind and Celia in the forest

When we reach the Forest of Arden, however, where the old, usurped Duke has found refuge, the sheets of black fabric are whipped away to reveal bare wood, giving a simplistic representation of the forest and signalling the change in mood. Stephen Warbeck’s music, not necessarily the most effective through the show as a whole, nonetheless works very well here, especially when combined with the twittering of birds. We really do get a powerful sense of the peace and contentment of the Duke and his followers living here, particularly in contrast with the previous scenes. Another memorable musical moment comes later when Amiens sings “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”.  Peter Gale has a beautiful, clear voice and plays his small role with a charming, gentle comedy.

This scene also introduces Tim McMullan’s Jaques as he drawls “More, more” from his perch on a wall at the other side of the theatre. This Jaques seems to take great delight in his melancholy, and in the language, as he often manages to draw out vowels so that a one syllable word sounds more like three. He also manages well with the challenging task of making the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech feel spontaneous, as if Jaques is just now coining it, rather than reciting lines many of us know by heart. McMullan is also probably the best of the cast at playing his audience- a young boy on a school trip serves as an example of the “whining schoolboy” as his friends laugh at him, and the whole audience is mocked as he speaks of the “Greek invocation to call fools into a circle” while drawing his finger around the audience in the circular theatre.

One of the most effective parts of this production is how the space is used. Jaques pops up in all sorts of places around the theatre- first lying along the wall beside laughing audience members, and later up in the gallery. Actors appear not just from the two side arches, but often burst onto the stage from the two narrow platforms, close enough for the audience to touch. During the wrestling several actors are needed to hold up a rope to keep the flailing Charles and Orlando from damaging any audience members as they grapple.

You may be wondering, with all these positive comments, why I’ve given this production only three stars. As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play to be completely dominated by a female character (Rosalind)- she has the most lines of any Shakespearean heroine and more than twice the number of Rosalind and Orlandolines of the second biggest part (Orlando). Therefore, for this play to really work, we have to really believe in her, to love her. Unfortunately, for me, Naomi Frederick just didn’t quite pull it off. She wasn’t bad, by any means- she just didn’t quite have that spark that has to be there for the character to really work. Perhaps I’m biased, after seeing Pippa Nixon’s Rosalind in the RSC production last year, which was truly spectacular- I have yet to see another version of the character as close to perfect as that.

Laura Rogers and Jack Laskey were both excellent, with Rogers’ witty, teasing Celia providing a lot of laughs, and Laskey’s tall, slim Orlando with wild rumpled hair instantly likeable and very watchable. In a way, this might have been part of the problem. Rosalind could dominate an entire scene in terms of line spoken, but it took only one line from Celia to steal the scene, and while she teased Orlando I would much rather have been listening to him. Of the “country copulatives”, Audrey is wonderfully awful and Silvius appropriately lovelorn, although Phebe can fall rather into the trap of shouting rather than showing actual emotion.

Overall, a mixed bag. Some very good performances, and very effective use of the unique space in the Globe. I imagine being there live would have been great fun, with the actors appearing all around you and so often mocking the audience and picking on groundlings to demonstrate points. Sadly, though, in the one area that can make or break a production of the play, this one was rather let down.

Find other Globe productions to watch at our Globe Player Help page

Caitlin Morris,
Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com
admin@players-shakespeare.com

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