In this pairing of two plays performed by the 12-strong, gender-equal Globe ensemble there is much to enjoy: Michelle Terry’s Hamlet, Jack Laskey’s Rosalind, the energy of collective endeavour. But while there is a genuine sense of a fresh start being made, the shows raise serious questions about the idea of approaching Shakespeare without a governing directorial concept.
I have grown impatient with ego-driven directors. At the same time, I believe that, at their best, directors can shed new light on familiar texts, recent examples being Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar and Blanche McIntyre’s Titus Andronicus. Here two directors are credited, Federay Holmes and Elle While, but they are clearly not the determining factor. The result is that big issues are not always addressed. In the case of Hamlet, there is no sense of Elsinore as a place of eavesdropping corruption, no hint of reckless sensuality in the relationship of Claudius and Gertrude, no awareness that Polonius is a wily politician rather than a prattling buffoon.
If I sometimes pined for a more questing exploration of the meaning of these plays to us today, I was relaxed about the impact of gender-fluid casting.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it works better in the tragedy than the comedy. We are used to female Hamlets and, in this production, Shubham Saraf also invests Ophelia with a dangerous anger and Bettrys Jones is a brisk and intemperate Laertes. In As You Like It, I was less persuaded by Jones as an Orlando overthrowing the court wrestler and found the role-switching confusing, with Catrin Aaron doubling as Corin and Phoebe. What does work in the comedy is the casting of a deaf actor, the vivacious Nadia Nadarajah, as Celia and the use of sign language as a means of communication between her and her fellow actors.
But, however much we sing the virtues of ensemble, there is no denying that many of Shakespeare’s plays have a pyramidal structure and Hamlet is one of them.
Terry is the fourth female Hamlet I have seen and she brings to the role all the qualities one might expect. She speaks the verse intelligently, initially conveys a sense of bereft solitude – her voice cracks on the implication that she “seems” to be affecting grief – and is very good at suggesting bottled rage. The most controversial touch is her later appearance in a clown costume: a slightly too obvious way of signalling Hamlet’s assumed madness and, with its stiff-sided pants, disconcertingly reminiscent of Eric Morecambe doing a funny turn as a period aviator. But I was glad to have seen Terry’s Hamlet even if the production rarely shocks one into a new awareness.
Much the same might be said of As You Like It. For all the ensemble unity, I shall remember it chiefly for Laskey’s overpowering Rosalind. Following in the footsteps of Adrian Lester and Ronald Pickup, he shows that a man is perfectly capable of capturing Rosalind’s quicksilver temperament. He explodes with anger at Orlando’s tardiness and hurls himself seductively on the ground to simulate a “coming-on disposition”. Tall, rangy and mercurial, Laskey reminds us that this is a play about the madness of love. He suggests that he could one day be a fine Hamlet.
Pearce Quigley is an amusingly laid-back Jaques, Tanika Yearwood sings melodiously as Amiens and Helen Schlesinger switches in a second from a gruffly tyrannical duke to his benign, banished brother. Despite that, I never got a strong sense of the play’s shift from court to country or of its transition from winter to spring. It remains, like the Hamlet, a perfectly decent production and a welcome relief from the work of the previous Globe regime, which seemed to assume that the plays were a bit boring unless jazzed up.
The Globe ensemble is a worthwhile experiment but I’m not convinced it provides a pattern for the future. The brute fact is that Shakespeare’s plays benefit from star performers and the inspirational vision of a first-rate director.
- At Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 26 August. Box office: 020-7401 9919.