There’s a handy rule of thumb when seeing productions at the Globe: if you find yourself admiring the veined marble columns or prickles of thatch protruding over the roof edge, if you find yourself staring at the sky and admiring the beauty of raindrops or marvelling at the synchronous clash of Shakespeare’s words being drowned out by the roar of an aeroplane, or if you’re simply too aware that your arse cheeks have gone to sleep and your back’s starting to go then the production probably isn’t doing its job. These moments of distraction come too frequently in Blanche McIntyre’s production but, with a subtle, clever directorial vision, I’m pretty sure that’s not her fault. I think it’s Shakespeare’s.
McIntyre revels in the clash of old and new. She almost convinces that this is a full-on Elizabethan period production but at its edges McIntyre has, in every aspect, brought in some distinctly contemporary touches. The characters are in full Elizabethan dress (those guys had really roomy pantaloons) but every so often one of them will have a modern prop. A band plays with sackbuts and viols, leading the audience in folk songs by Johnny Flynn. Rousing dance routines even seem to have a hint of Gangnam Style.
With these nods to the here and now, Shakespeare’s sylvan farce becomes an insightful comment on sexuality and gender performance: all the world’s a stage, of course, and its people merely players. So, in As You Like It, men play women and women play men. There’s a hint of fluid sexuality, both conscious and accidental, as Phebe falls for Rosalind-in-disguise and Orlando just can’t help being attracted to Ganymede despite being fully aware that he’s a man (except, obviously, he’s not. He’s Rosalind.) The men – Orlando, Silvius – are completely beholden to the women, Rosalind and Phebe.
And in terms of acting, it’s the female bromance (sismance?) between Rosalind (Michelle Terry) and Celia (Ellie Piercy) that is the most enjoyable to watch. Terry and Piercy provide all of the broad comedy, executing their double act to perfection and acting like natural best friends, understanding each other’s tics and quirks, going along with each other’s games. Terry knows exactly how to work the crowd and adds plenty of little details to her face and voice as she embarrasses herself in front of Orlando or decides to play a man, or masterminds the gender-bending plot that will reunite her with her lover. She makes Rosalind the most dominant and fully formed character in the play, someone who can veer from cunning plans to silly games in an instant.
So why the boredom? Partly because Terry is really good, and whenever she’s not on stage it feels as if something is missing. But partly, also, because nothing happens in the first act. A wrestling match, that’s about it. So the interval and much of the second act are spent trying to forgive the first act for being so dull.
Still, with a jubilant ending and a song and dance to cap it all off, it’s difficult not to smile seeing the happy couples boogying lovingly with each other. McIntyre stains her production with a contemporary hue but she also manages to capture the period pastorality, the ruff and tumble, of one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies.
Drama Queen: an interview with Michelle Terry.