For the opening of the first season at Shakespeare’s Globe with Michelle Terry in charge as AD, the theatre has chosen to stage As You Like It and Hamlet in tandem, with Terry taking a minor role in the first and playing Hamlet in the second. The thinking behind this is that the plays were both written around the same date and will therefore be capable of illuminating one another in new and fascinating ways. This idea is a curious one: as any writer will tell you, it’s perfectly possible to work on utterly different projects either simultaneously or consecutively. Moreover, the two plays do not contain any obvious parallels thematically, tonally or structurally, As You Like It a typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities, multiple marriages and some vaguely supernatural elements; and Hamlet an infinitely complex, oily tragedy about grief, parents, sex, desire and the essential struggle of humanity.
The website text describing the two as ‘sibling’ plays doesn’t offer much in the way of precision as to how As You Like It and Hamlet are meant to speak to each other and neither, more importantly, does watching the two performed on the same afternoon, as the season’s programming allows you to do. Perhaps it’s actually their differences that make them resemble siblings, like Bianca and Katherina (or even Tia and Tamera).
As productions, however, there is a lot of overlap. Both are created and performed by the Globe Ensemble. Nominally there are two directors, Federay Holmes and Elle While, but their status as ‘the ones in charge’ has been minimised, as demonstrated by the way their names are mixed within the cast list on the Globe website – this is not Holmes and While’s Hamlet in the way it was recently Robert Icke’s Hamlet. Terry has spoken publically about the Globe Ensemble’s way of working as a deliberate attempt to rejig the way theatre is made and, as part of that, to return wholly to Shakespeare’s stories.
It’s a bold decision to open the season by experimenting with how Shakespeare stagings are created – one which points to an interesting future for the Globe with Terry in charge. There are hints here of how the approach could manifest itself further down the line, including the decision to incorporate BSL-using performers within the production: although the performance unfortunately isn’t BSL-interpreted all the way through, it does suggest accessibility could be an important part of the Globe’s programming decisions.
It’s worth describing the thinking behind the pair of productions, because the best way of engaging with the end product onstage is through the lens of it being the first iterations of an interesting and worthwhile experiment yet to be realised in a good piece of theatre. Of the two, As You Like It is more successful – particularly post-interval – whilst Hamlet is unfortunately dreadful.
The overarching problem is that there is nothing overarching. It would be close to impossible to describe succinctly either production, both in terms of setting (as in, it’s Much Ado About Nothing set in the Mexican Revolution) or perspective (it’s a Romeo and Juliet that really illuminates the character of the nurse and maternal bonds, for example). There’s no vision to either piece, the kind of vision that often a director would bring, but which is also present in the best pieces of devised theatre.
Instead, it often resembles a ‘too many cooks’ parable. The costumes are perhaps the clearest example. Designed by Ellan Parry in close collaboration with cast members, they borrow heavily from existing items in the Globe wardrobe plus anything-and-everything. The result could be a clever deconstruction of period costuming, a metatheatrical comment on past into present on the eve of a new era at the theatre. Unfortunately it’s a mess on both occasions, that makes no sense the more you try to analyse it for visual metaphors, symbolism or integration with the plays. With everyone essentially able to wear what they want (from full-on Elizabeth I costuming to moody teenage anoraks) it has the air of a lobster-at-the-Nativity school play, only minus the charm.
The ‘set design’, meanwhile, is close to non-existent. On both occasions, it mainly consists of a small wooden stool (on the right in As You Like It and on the left in Hamlet). This could be understood as a ‘stripped back’ approach, perhaps part of the attempt to return to the original text. As it is, it just contributes to the suggestion that there is nothing cohesive or clear-sighted about the productions as a whole. It fundamentally misunderstands the aesthetic elements of theatre by an implicit suggestion that the visual parts of a production, like set, costume and lighting, get in the way of telling the story – that they’re additional extras flung on top rather than integral and important parts of theatre that are only distracting or unnecessary when done badly (as they are here).
I could continue to list the multitude of sins both plays commit – including the repetitive blasts of music that sporadically accompany scene changes, the placing of the actors on stage so that they’re either running in random circles or saying their lines Straight At The Audience, and the loud, harried delivery of dialogue. But doing so is gratuitously mean and pretty futile. The fundamentally disappointing thing about this pair of plays – and in particular Hamlet – is the incredibly synthetic engagement with the text itself – despite the claim that this is precisely the aim of the Globe Ensemble. There is close to no subtlety or complexity about any of this as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s words.
To give just one example, the relationship between Gertrude and the new King has been stripped of any sexual passion, tension or basic ‘adultness’. This is important because Hamlet’s reaction to the new marriage is interwoven with his deeply uncomfortable attitude to his mother having a sex life, and his own relationship with Ophelia (it’s no coincidence he tells her to go to a nunnery). As Andrzej Lukowski’s Time Out review has already noted, when compared to something like Icke’s Hamlet, there’s extremely little to engage with here.
There’s a suspicion from some people towards directors or ‘auteurs’. In his review, Michael Billington refers to the ‘ego-driven directors’, before admitting that at least a little direction would be a good thing in the case of these productions. The idea of ‘getting back to the stories’ and putting old William and the product of his quill at the centre of proceedings is a noble-sounding one. But it’s also a deeply flawed one – not least from a scholarly point of view. As with many Shakespeare plays, Hamlet included, there are multiple versions it’s possible to return to, all of which are rich with ambiguities and the subject of historic debates regarding their meaning. It also suggests that the focus of a production by a big-name director is the director themselves – which in some respect it is, because you’re seeing the world (or the extant text) through their eyes for one moment. But to suggest this creates a barrier between audience and text is like suggesting that members of religious orders only ever creates a barrier between people and their gods.
In the same manner that preachers are supposed to illuminate, interpret and inspire a person’s relationship with religious teachings, directors point the audience towards new ways of understanding and emotionally connecting with a play. It’s the very reason we bother seeing ‘yet another’ Hamlet and what makes the prospect of, for instance, Blanche McIntyre’s The Winter’s Tale (on later in the Globe’s season) so enticing. In the specific case of Shakespeare’s Globe, this is crucial. Because the belief that one set of plays by one man are worth preserving and performing hinges on the conviction that the words of Shakespeare welcome a truly infinite range of interpretations – the very fact there is no simple story at the heart of a play like Hamlet is precisely why we keep telling it.
As You Like It and Hamlet are on until 26 August 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.