Neil Dowden on the South Bank
12 September 2023
The final show in the Globe’s summer season – which has leaned heavily towards Shakespeare’s comedies – is the evergreen rom-com As You Like It. Ellen McDougall’s joyous, gender-fluid production is entirely in keeping with the play’s cross-dressing and gender-role-playing elements. It’s a diverse, feelgood show that celebrates difference and is played throughout in a major key which eschews the play’s more subdued, melancholic strain.
Tessa Parr as Touchstone. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
As is the custom at the Globe these days – suggesting that Shakespeare’s text is not deemed sufficiently accessible to modern audiences in its original form – the play has been “edited”, in this case not by one but two dramaturgs – Madeline Sayet and Char Boden. Later scenes involving local bucolic characters in the Forest of Arden are noticeably shorter (“Let’s just go to the next scene”) and those subplots make less impact, while Rosalind’s epilogue to the audience (which doesn’t fit in with the production’s ethos and is eminently dispensable) has been replaced by an elegant solo dance.
Funnily enough, though, a prologue has been inserted by trans writer Travis Alabanza (“the bit before the play – a bit like the starter in a fancy restaurant”) that doesn’t add much but does set the scene for an inclusive, free-wheeling show that engages the audience from the start.
Good use is made of the Globe arena, with performers often making their way through the crowd to and from the stage. The wrestling contest between Orlando and Charles takes place in the yard with only ring ropes separating the sparrers from the appreciative groundlings surrounding them. Orlando pins his love poem to Rosalind on one of the stage’s pillars – why just one? – which naturally stand in for Arden’s trees. Banners of aphoristic quotations (such as “There are more species of love than you know”) are hung along a cable above the pit.
The set design of Wills (Paul Williams) is surprisingly minimal, without any attempt to evoke either the court or the forest – presumably to facilitate a fast-moving, fluid production where the different places in the play are perhaps presented more as states of mind rather than actual locations. The contrast between the two states of repression and liberation is shown visually in Max Johns’ striking costumes, with the monochrome, formal, period dress giving way to a colourful, relaxed, “Elizabethan punk” attire which is like a deshabille exile court in the forest. There’s no doubt that Arden is where people go to let it all hang out and find their own identities.
The cast. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
McDougall (making her debut at the outdoor Globe, though she has previously directed Othello at the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) ensures there is plenty of movement and audience interaction (including the cast offering apples – from the Tree of Knowledge? – to those at the front) in a playful production that is full of fun if short on subtlety. The live band in the gallery (led by composer Michael Henry) evoke a rustic ambience, with the ensemble singing modern pop music in song-and-dance sequences that could be sharpened up. The cast – which includes queer and gender-nonconforming actors – certainly embrace the audience, though the standard of verse-speaking is uneven with some speech inaudible.
The principals are excellent. Canadian actor Nina Bowers is a lively and graceful Rosalind, quick to fall in love and rarely staying still, both amusing and touching in her disguised courtship of Orlando where she plays the leading role. Isabel Adomakoh Young makes the most of the underwritten part of Orlando turning what can be a passive character into someone who is at once funny and passionate. And Macy-Jacob Seelochan’s more pragmatic, droll Celia is a delicious foil to Rosalind’s headstrong spontaneity.
Alex Austin’s performance as a camply vivacious Jaques seems totally at odds with the character’s philosophical melancholy so his decision to leave for a solitary life at the end makes no sense. Tessa Parr’s jester Touchstone (garbed in motley with cap and bells) is spot on in terms of body language, but vocally it is not clear enough. As the usurped Duke Senior Tonderai Munyevu exudes a benignly laid-back presence as he warmly welcomes people to the Forest of Arden where they are free to follow their natural impulses.