at Shakespeare’s Globe, Friday 10th May 2013
With the two productions of As You Like It I’ve seen in the last few weeks being among the best Shakespearean performances I’ve come across in my short life, the play is very quickly becoming my favourite in the Bard’s canon. Both Maria Aberg’s Glastonbury-style show at the RSC and the Marjanishvili Theatre’s take on the play end in anarchic, messy, blissfully joyous finales which bring smiles when remembering them, encapsulating the capacity for hope within the play itself.
Hailing from Georgia on a triumphant return after the Globe to Globe season last year, one of the most striking things about the Marjanishvili Theatre’s production is its sheer sense of delight. Directed by Levan Tsuladze, its main conceit is that we are watching a group of travelling players perform their take on the play, meaning there is just as much potential for comedy off-stage as on. The piece begins, for example, with a pair of actors in the midst of a steamy session, setting up the idea that we are going to see just as much drama in the wings as in the play itself.
The risk with doing this is that attention is drawn away from the actual production of As You Like It, but this isn’t the case at all due to some smart staging and well-timed gags. Situated on the Globe stage is a smaller makeshift platform, with myriad boxes and crates surrounding it, all bursting with props, costumes and instruments. Whilst action occurs on stage, we can always see the reactions of the cast members not currently ‘performing’ (though obviously they are), and who often add to the scene in progress by injecting sound effects or lending a helping hand to actors. This isn’t just a random idea either; on a basic level, it heightens the comedy and reflects Jacques’ suggestion that “All the world’s a stage”, but it also allows Tsuladze and his company to play with concepts of performance and theatremaking.
Crucially, actors do not commit any less when they are speaking Shakespeare’s text (if it can be called that, considering we are hearing a translated Georgian version by Lasha Bugadze). When playing the lords, lovers and clowns, we still completely believe the performances which are being given; Rosalind and Orlando are no less in love and Jacques no less melancholic. Instead, we get honest portrayals of the characters we love with exciting moments of flux where the cross-over between reality and performance becomes blurred.
This is clear, for example, in the presentation of the Dukes, both of whom are played by Bero Baratashvili. In the earlier scenes, his performance as Duke Frederick seems to be unsure and week, and needs help with prompting from a fellow ensemble member sitting at the side of the on-stage stage. In the forest, however, when playing Duke Senior, we get a far more confident, buoyant performance. The court, then, represents constriction and reliance, whilst those in the forest are far more free and independent.
The comic acting throughout is exquisitely rendered, and puts most of the performances I’ve seen at the Globe to shame, with each performer having an intimate understanding of how humour works in a space like this. Alongside the central, energetic performances of Nikoloz Tavadze, Ketevan Shatirishvili and Nato Kakhidze as Orlando, Rosalind and Celia, there’s also excellent timing and verve demonstrated by Malkhaz Abuladze’s foolish Touchstone and Zurab Berikashvili’s forlorn Silvius. Also well crafted are the effeminate renditions of Le Beau and Amiens, which serve as a contrast to the gender-bending of Rosalind. The stand-out performance, however, comes from Nata Murvanidze’s androgynous Jacques, who delivers her speeches with such conviction that even in a foreign language she provokes an impassioned response. During the aforementioned seven ages of man speech, the audience goes completely silent.
Tsuladze also has a flair for creating strong visual images, which comes in useful when we don’t directly understand the language. When Oliver decides to “burn the lodging” where Orlando lives, we see a miniature recreation of the scene on stage, whilst the love letters pinned up around the forest become balloons which float off into the distance. Most impressive, however, is the use of leaves to serve the dual purpose of evoking an autumnal atmosphere and visualising moments of joy. One scene particularly stands out, as Orlando, Rosalind and Celia dance around the stage with umbrellas to the sound of Vakhtang Kakhidze’s music, scooping up leaves and allowing them to fall, in a sort of dry, leafy take on Singin’ in the Rain.
But perhaps the main reason for the production’s success is that love is never over-sentimentalised. It is certainly a source of happiness and drives the piece forward, but the energy and commitment of the actors means it never comes across as soppy (no softly spoken sweet nothings here). This As You Like It prefers instead to send-up those moments where characters fall in love instantly through use of simply, comic aural motifs and the help of the dot matrices, which project at opportune moments simple statements like “Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede”. The Marjanishvili Theatre consequently create a piece of theatre which truly captures the spirit of the play and does something anarchic and joyous with it. The last moment sums up the experience; after all the lovers have been paired off, the sad, ranting and disillusioned Jacques is slammed inside a box. In the world this ensemble creates, there is no room for cynicism – only joy, hope and love.