The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0216 Thursday, 7 June 2018
Date: June 6, 2018 at 8:13:25 AM EDT
Subject: From TLS - 'Late innovations'
HAMLET / AS YOU LIKE IT
Globe Theatre, until August 26
Gender sensitivity seems to be an especially twenty-first-century phenomenon. It is a particular preoccupation of ours to muse on the politics of gender, and its frequent elisions: notions of toxic masculinity, and silenced femininity; the places where binaries collapse out of certainty into confusion, sometimes happily, sometimes in more fraught fashion.
Theatre, if it is to offer us – as Hamlet believes it must – “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”, is inevitably a staging ground for this sort of cultural self-examination. So it is no surprise that we have entered a time of blind casting, in which the gender or race of the written character is often not matched by that of the player. In the past two years, I have not seen a single Shakespearean production in which all the male characters have been played by men. The “late innovation”, as Rosencrantz might put it, has swiftly become accepted tradition.
Just so with the two new productions at the Globe, the first under the new artistic director Michelle Terry and her ensemble: Hamlet (Terry herself), Laertes (Bettrys Jones), Horatio (Catrin Aaron) and Guildenstern (Nadia Nadarajah) in Hamlet, and Orlando (Jones), Adam (Terry) and Amiens (Tanika Yearwood) in As You Like It, are all played by women. And we get a male Ophelia (Shubham Saraf) and Rosalind (Jack Laskey) as counter-balance. Shakespeare is, of course, interested in both the vagaries of gendered relationships, and the “quintessence” of humankind more broadly. As in so many things, he has foreseen our modern concerns, and forestalled any fusty objections.
Indeed, one of the central jokes in As You Like It, as with so many comedies, resides in the identity of Rosalind as a boy playing a woman playing a boy (“were it not better”, she says as she assumes the role of Ganymede, “because that I am more than common tall / That I did suit me all points like a man?”). And Jack Laskey has tremendous fun, and shows winning charisma, as Rosalind, a lock forward in Elizabethan gown, wooing and frolicking with Bettrys Jones’s miniature Orlando. Shakespeare’s reference to Ganymede, the boy-lover of Zeus in Greek mythology, is a clear indication of his interest in the ambivalent sexuality at play here. As is the play’s epilogue, spoken by Rosalind, which is even more explicit in that regard: “if I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not”.
Hamlet is, among many other things, an exploration of the physical relationship between men and women, and its carnal consequences: those “country matters” Hamlet talks about with Ophelia; his appalled rancour at his mother’s choice to “ live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty”. When the genders are mixed up in the casting, one cannot help but reflect more, not less, on Hamlet’s odd blend of hormonal angst and misogyny, his love for Ophelia distorted to the point of disgust towards all women, with their misleading make-up and unseemly physical desires.
Hamlet is also a play that rises far above issues of sex and gender, exploring all manifestations of the “piece of work” that is material existence, from the politics of “great ones” to the “fall of a sparrow”. Its success in such an ambitious enterprise is how any production must be judged. Here, Michelle Terry the actor gives us a wonderfully judged Hamlet; her Hamlet is not without its problems.
Terry has replaced Emma Rice, the former artistic director, who was ultimately relieved of her role owing to her fondness for the “late innovations” of technology in her productions: lots of light, music and complicated staging. Not for her were the audience expected to piece out theatrical imperfections with their thoughts, or to cram “within this wooden O” the vasty scenes that existed on Shakespeare’s page; she was happy to show brightly and loudly whatever she could.
Terry’s first productions are a response – and may be seen as a rebuke – to that approach. She has selected two plays that – like Henry V – were written around 1599, and would have been played in the newly constructed Globe. And, unsurprisingly, they both work within its “unworthy scaffold” without need for much ornamentation: the stage is bare; and the entrances and exits smooth and unencumbered. As the audience, we become colleagues in the great pith and moment of the plays. So when Hamlet begins on the frosty and apprehensive battlements of Elsinore, we are encouraged to exercise our imagination to take us away from a balmy late spring in London beneath a clear sky (filled with air traffic). And when we hear described those “antique roots” and brawling streams of Arden in As You Like It, we must supply the imagery ourselves, to find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything”, as Duke Senior puts it.
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