It would be so much fun to be part of Michelle Terry’s ensemble cast that performs both Hamlet and As You Like It to open this year’s season and her tenure as artistic director. They’re having a great time in what are something of a return to the Rylance era of the actor-manager, but uneven pacing and a smattering of interesting but disconnected choices lead to a lack of cohesion that indicates a lack directorial voice.
There are some excellent features in both shows but as whole productions, both are only loosely cohesive. An eclectic costume concept that begins in the past and travels through the centuries to the present in fun and unpredictable, yet unjustified on the Globe’s bare stage (something not seen in many years). The performance styles are generally current, with some delightful off-text moments and some less exciting scenes that drag. As You Like It has plenty of gags and slapstick, and whilst Hamlet would be expected to have less, there are some surprisingly humourous moments. Some of these work, some feel inappropriate to the story.
These two productions are undoubtedly actor-focused, with direction taking a back seat to clear characterisation that tells the story. Though both scripts are smartly edited to a 2 hour, 45 minute running time and there are some moments of clever staging, there is no apparent overriding idea that brings the creative choices together. Though this ensemble approach more closely reflects what is considered Original Practice than the use of a single, authoritative director, it clashes with contemporary approaches and audience expectation, creating what is perceived as a disjointed production.
This actor-focused approach leads to some fantastic performances, though. To cut to the chase, Terry’s Hamlet is youthful and sulky, unashamed of grieving and with nothing to lose. Her transition from emo kid into a dirty Pierrot is unexpected, but ties in well with the company’s use of Commedia in As You Like It. Other highlights include the versatile James Garnon’s Audrey, Bettrys Jones as a ferociously devoted Orlando and Laertes, and Nadia Nadarajah’s Guildenstern and Celia. Helen Schlesinger as both fathers in As You Like It (and Gertrude in Hamlet) gives a transformational performance, though her messy quiff of blond hair and powerful first entrance evokes Emma Rice – whether deliberate or not, it’s rather like seeing a ghost.
Nadarajah is a Deaf actor, and the company made a commendably bold and inclusive decision to not have her BSL translated into spoken English. The characters who shared scenes with her use BSL and speech, which is great, but it would be even better to see this continued throughout the entirety of the productions rather than just in her scenes.
The ‘gender blind’, 50-50 casting Terry employs is refreshing and in As You Like It, adds a layer of queerness that makes this light, pastoral comedy peppered with slapstick a touch more serious. This is downplayed in Hamlet due to the comparative lack of romance.
Though there are plenty of positive elements across these two productions, they don’t cohere as part of an over-arching style or concept. The excellent performances, physical comedy and BSL use stand out, but as a whole they are safe, well done shows that are neither disappointing, but nor are they exciting or innovative. It’s fine work for tourists and those new to the Globe, but seasoned theatregoers aren’t likely to find this pair particularly memorable.
Hamlet and As You Like It run in rep through 26 August.
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