Chris Eldon Lee reviews Northern Broadsides ‘As You Like It’ which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 26th February … and touring throughout the North.
The snowdrops are out, there is warmth in the air and Northern Broadsides are back on the road with their traditional spring Shakespeare. At last, life is getting back to normal. But there is little that is traditional or normal about their new production of ‘As You Like It’.
Cross-dressing is one of the Bard’s recurrent themes and here director Laurie Sansom propels it into the stratosphere….way beyond the author’s simple instruction for Rosalind to pretend to be a man.
Indeed, this is the most gender-fluid Shakespeare I have even seen. From the start, Orlando’s man servant Adam is his Nanny; throughout, Touchstone is exceedingly camp and glam (in red ruff and bright, tight trousers) and the play rounds off with a bearded bride.
The cast includes a drag artist as Jacques, a high-heeled cabaret artist as Touchstone and a non binary actor playing Rosalind. The cross dressing theme is further emphasised by bringing the costume rail and wardrobe mistress on stage and having an array of frocks and suit bags hanging from the rafters. So, you know you are in for an unusual evening.
Remarkably, all this works an absolute treat…though I couldn’t decide whether the concept dictated the casting, or the cast determined the concept. Either way, the idea is surprisingly supported by the text….if interpreted with that in mind.
For example, E M Williams is simply superb as Rosalind and there is more than a hint of her lesbian love for Isobel Coward’s be-suited, bloke-ish Celia. Rosalind kicks off her shoes and hitches up her black miniskirt before wrapping her legs round Celia to deliver the line “What think you of falling in love?” I hadn’t quite seen that line like that before, but why not?
However, when Shaban Dar’s rugged Orlando slides into view, the play takes a conventional turn. Their tricky courtship is beautifully handled, as the jokey role play transcends into sincerity. Rosalind manipulates a tongue-tied Orlando till she is truly smitten … at which point, true love is not to be laughed at.
But everything else is.
The wrestling match is MC’d by Joe Morrow’s sequined Touchstone as a send up of Saturday afternoon TV ‘World of Sport’, with belting, grinding, rock music. In more conventional comedy scenes, three very unruly sheep get the ‘One Woman and Her Dog’ treatment, Silvius woos Phoebe wearing a heart-shaped cod-piece and Jacques’ famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech is entertainingly acted out by the company – which lifts the familiar lines enormously. Elsewhere, Shakespeare’s script is augmented by references to a ‘wonder bra’ and the naff-ness of his most famous sonnet.
And so the play careers along, bouncing back and forth between absurdity and sensitivity; from slapstick to beautiful ballad and back again. It is crazy, energetic, bizarre, captivating and, above all, great fun.
The simple staging is particularly effective, consisting of a collection of old-fashioned hat stands to create Arden’s forest and thickets. The central hat stand is the tallest of all. It becomes an erotic dance pole in Celia’s lurid huntsman dream and allows Rosalind to shin up it with a festoons of ribbons to turn it into a Maypole.
And so, on their 30th anniversary, Northern Broadsides pay due tribute to their founder Barrie Rutter, who ensued there was a folk dance in every show he directed.