Starlet-style dressing rooms complete with mirrors framed with the obligatory jutting bulbs, and the racks of clothes that are one of Silviu Purcărete’s motifs, swamp the stage as the actors wander around, warming up their voices, chatting, memorising their lines. Investigating textile habits, inhabiting a role and becoming inhabited by it, habituating themselves to a part, to a gender.
The first half of this play is in essence one extended costume change: no sooner has the man (Zsolt Trill) playing Rosalind become a woman, (s)he has to take on a different, male identity. Later, she stands, opening her man’s shirt, displaying the bandage binding her chest. The binding emphasises the flat man’s chest that makes it both redundant (the male actor has no breasts to bind) and deeply needed (the male actor needs binding to look like a woman who has
bound her breasts flat). This bandage encapsulates the ways this play makes visible layers of identity, keeping them constantly in rich and dynamic interplay with each other.
There’s a superb moment early on in the play when Rosalind and Celia (the latter played by Tibor Fehér) are still trussing themselves into corsets blanched and stiff with cornstarch, pausing every so often to deliver a few lines. Up until this point they have been nothing other than men dressing up as Shakespearean heroines, getting ready for a part,
practising in the dressing room: every flutter and stumble and moue of surprise clearly deliberate. Then Rosalind faints; her alarm unfeigned, Celia runs to bring her a glass of water. Fainting in this play is always potentially difficult to get right, and one of the biggest challenges Shakespeare hands the actors: towards the end of As You Like It, a boy
actor has to pretend to genuinely faint in a way that shows a pretend man revealing he is in fact a woman in disguise. Fehér and Trill move far beyond good execution and take it to a whole other level: with this fall into womanhood, everything suddenly becomes real.
The world Pucărete has created is quite simply gorgeous. The prize-fighter Charles (Attila Horváth) is so gigantic that the other characters have to cup their hands and stretch upwards to talk to him; when he responds, his voice is electronically amplified. Doctors run past with an arm waggling in a medical bag. Corin’s sheep are sleepy ladies in negliges, positively delighted to be fed withered plants A huge fairytale deer taunts the hapless outlaws as they crack open tin cans of gloop. As with the hints of hard times in the hunters’ un-nutritious fare, there are darker, cheaper
undertones to this production. The brides appear in the final scene wrapped in plastic, which the grooms tear through raggedly for a kiss: a pretty obvious image of the ugliness of commercialisation. Unusually, Celia is bitterly jealous of Rosalind. Instead of consummating their marriage, Audrey and Touchstone beat each other to a pulp. Most joltingly,
William (Audrey’s spurned lover, usually a quickly-forgotten figure of fun complete with hammed-up Westcountry accent) disrupts the happy mass wedding by shooting himself in the head (and this is not the only unexpected gunshot in the show).
As soon as he began directing this Hungarian company in As You Like It, the Romanian director Silviu Purcărete (a ‘co-creator’ of rather than a visitor to the Gdansk festival) envisaged Jacques as a woman, in full clown make-up. Whether she is kissing Rosalind tenderly or waltzing gently with the deer (which ends life as buckets of gigantic entrails) in the snow, Dorottya Udvaros defies expectations. She delivers the ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech to the entire cast like a melancholy redcoat with a microphone – her audience sit like rapt children before leaving halfway through to party – they don’t want to know about getting old.
When Rosalind hits her hand hard by punching the metal separating her from the forest, Udvaros runs backstage for a bandage. Fehér comes to see if everythign is OK. The performers mutter together. We all worry for a moment that Trill is genuinely in pain, but this (staged?) moment also confirms (despite the villainously post-human Charles and the Duke and his henchmen who blind their victims with torches in a recognisable portrayal of modern evils), an important, basic sense of humanity uniting so many of the characters, from the sheep to the bitter Jacques.
More from this year’s Gdansk Shakespeare Festival.