While those who prepared a year in advance went to see the early performances of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican (I’m not jealous), I decided to go traditional and hit the Globe Theatre and enjoy watching Shakespeare standing in the rain (still not jealous). I almost couldn’t do even that after accidentally booking tickets for the wrong performance. I don’t know how Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was (although I expect warmer and drier,) but the Globe certainly managed to put on two raucously entertaining performances of As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s more obviously self-aware comedies and this production felt like it was taking place as much on the stage as in the forest it is set in. It was only when a troupe of courtiers marched in with a real deer on a pole fresh from the hunt that I felt I was deep in the Forest of Arden. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the play containing the infamous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech by ‘monsieur melancholy’ Jacques. Whilst fiercely funny, Blanche McIntyre’s traditionally staged production (corsets and all) never really felt melancholy. Even at the start with the De Boyes brothers huddled around their father’s coffin as the funeral bell tolled, the atmosphere too quickly diffused into comedy (or dare I say farce) in the two brothers’ dispute and failed to make me believe in Orlando’s plight. Rosalind’s quip to Jacques that ‘your experience makes you sad: I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad’ highlights the need for the contrast of happy and sad on the stage to bring out the humour better. Jacques asks for more music when he first enters and Amiens replies that ‘it will make you melancholy’; at times I needed more melancholy.
The humour that there was, and there was a lot of it, was truly hilarious, and at points tear inducing, particularly the appearance of Gary Shelford’s sequined Hymen and some of James Garnon’s Jacques’ interactions with the audience. Most of the comedy appropriately came through the play’s hero Rosalind; however, played with a giddy animation by Michelle Terry whose witty banter with the other characters was a joy to watch. The pace at times had a tendency to drag, in particular some of the longer dialogues, but often it was anticipated and stemmed by McIntyre’s wonderful use of Shakespeare’s songs, even accompanied by a tap-dancing quartet in one scene. Overall this was a very funny performance and whilst it needed a little more dark, the light certainly burned brightly.
Where As You Like It lacked that element of melancholy, Max Webster’s Much Ado About Nothing gave a whole kaleidoscope of emotions that never seemed to jar with each other. The standout performance here was Alex Mugnaioni whose pantomime villain Don John was silkily malicious, but even better was his farcical fool Dogberry who stole every scene he was in. This was due in no small part to his physical humour, which involved at one point slamming into a pillar, and his audience interaction in having the whole theatre chanting that he was an ass. Thankfully he managed not to detract from the central couple of Beatrice and Benedick (Emma Pallant and Christopher Harper) whose repartee was very droll and always felt at the centre of the audience’s attention. Their chemistry felt natural and the antagonism blended seamlessly into love as the plot rolled on.
The setting worked incredibly effectively having a 1940s Italian flavour that didn’t clash with the Elizabethan Globe, and also created one of the funniest parts of the play (although unintentional) when Claudio’s (Aaron Anthony) military regalia came apart as his metal lapels fell off in a tussle with Robert Pickavance’s Leonatus. It luckily didn’t detract too much from one of the more serious scenes and allowed some wonderful improvisations: ‘We are like to have our two noses snapped off … and our lapels!’
What stood out was the musical flavour Max Webster’s production had. It is usually no surprise when the music begins in As You Like It but I was pleasantly entertained when Much Ado opened with almost every cast member playing an instrument (Leonatus on trombone was my favourite). This production was witty, emotional, farcical and musical, and perhaps the best indicator of its success is that I didn’t notice my feet aching until well after all the actors had left the stage.
One more reason not to be jealous of anyone lucky enough to see Benedict’s Dane (I’m not jealous, honestly): standing tickets are only a fiver! So get yourselves to the globe if you want a bit of Shakespeare, and let’s face it who doesn’t?