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Monday, July 20, 2015

A Review of Opus Arte / Shakespeare’s Globe As You Like It.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare.  Opus Arte (2010) DVD format. Color.  Stereo. 149 minutes.  Amazon Price $18.72

Yes, it is true that the line “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room,” from Act 3, Scene 3, of As You Like It likely refers to the 1593 murder of fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe.  And, yes, the play bears a clear relation to Thomas Lodge’s now tedious novel Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie.  Among such facts, about which scholars (myself included) debate, are also tidbits that can be much more helpful to the general reader (or even the spectator) such as Shakespeare’s pun upon Touchstone (the jester or “fool”) describing himself as “capricious”.  The line is addressed to the goatherd Audrey who he is wooing among her goats.  The word “capricious,” as the playwright was obviously well aware, means “goat-like in behavior”.  Actually, he may have been the writer (and this the play) that first coined the term from Latin into English.

The full line goes “I am here with thee, and thy Goats, as the most capricious Poet honest Ovid among the Goths.”  Shakespeare’s works are shot through with Ovid like no other poet.  Even the French poet Ronsard, from whom he also borrowed liberally, did not begin to compare to Ovid in the playwright’s estimation.  You may think you know nothing of Ronsard but you do in Jacques’ famous lines from Act 2, Scene 7:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,…

They are a translation from the French poet.  The lines that follow these are an overview borrowed from the Greeks.

Historically, the poet Ovid was exiled to Romania by Caesar Augustus for licentiousness.  The country was then a Roman province granted to a domesticated tribe of Goths.  Shakespeare’s plays are rife with exile and exiles; also with jesters/fools.  For centuries, traditional scholars have generally agreed that the playwright identified with Touchstone and felt out of place in the humble station into which he had been born.  Other reasons for these themes and identifications suggest themselves to scholars who support the Earl of Oxford for the author of the plays and poems.

But as fascinating as all of this can be to some of us, it does not in the least change the fact that the plays and poems are the reason that all the English speaking world, scholar and general audience alike, know that William Shakespeare (whoever he might have been) existed.  It is essential to punctuate our various Shakespeare studies and debates with performance of the plays.  For all of our glosses, they were made to be played, after all.  Without that the rest is worse than useless.

The Opus Arte / Shakespeare’s Globe DVD of As You Like It comes with no footnotes.  It is a production well-conceived and played with spirit.  Like the original productions of the play, Thea Sharrock, the director, has supplied the lack of stage directions in the text of Elizabethan plays — As You Like It included — with her own inventions.  She has also added a brief opening scene not in the original play in order to impress upon the audience the stature of the evil Duke Frederick.  In the second half of the play a brief scene, originally intended as an interlude, not directly essential to the play, is dropped.

Film director Kriss Russman also made a few minor additions. The DVD of As You Like It begins outside The Globe, giving the viewer a sense of the place and a way themselves to enter inside.  It is the first of many scenes that form close corollaries to the original Shakespeare experience.  If the concession stands, which were not open on this occasion, had been bustling, it would at least have hinted at the chaos and din through which the original Globe playgoer would have had to make his or her way in order to enter and take their place inside.

Within the theater, the camera makes the first of many sweeps of the place and the audience.  We get a sense of the open roof and the old fashioned exposed beam construction.  The pit below and before the stage is filled almost exclusively with bustling teenagers presumably invited by way of a class trip.  As the play starts, all bustling will cease and they will stand in rapt attention.  The ground-level seating circling the stage and pit and the double balcony are full of adults on benches.

This production being done at a reconstructed Globe, there is no thought of making the thing contemporary.  The most that will be done in this way is the occasional bit of body language to illustrate the meaning of a phrase that might otherwise be lost on a 21st century audience and a speech by Touchstone delightfully delivered with a hip-hop beat.  The songs Shakespeare included are played on a guitar, a lute-player presumably being beyond the budget.  With these minor exceptions, the entire idea is to experience the play as it was written to be performed.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, stage scenery was still some one hundred years in the future (Court masques excepted).  The present Globe consists of a broad plank stage and structural columns holding up a canopy and three levels of "tiring-house" (the second of which serves for balcony scenes) .  These combine with players’ descriptions and viewers’ imaginations to portray palace, pasture and forest.  The holes in the walls, were the plaster has fallen away from the lathe, and the fire extinguisher stations may each be supplied interpretations as the viewer chooses.  The former are certainly consistent with the Elizabethan theater going experience, and the latter, perhaps, a reminder that the original Globe came to its end by burning rapidly to the ground while the audience rushed for the exits.

There being no scenery and no special effects, then, all comes down to the quality of the performances.  The uniformly high level of the acting, that being the case, is especially gratifying.

Still, Touchstone, the clown, steals the show.  As You Like It is a comedy, and however much the designation meant only that a happy ending was promised, Shakespeare liked to include all the comedy in the modern sense that his plays would bear (sometimes a bit more).  In this production, the clown is provided with a scepter bearing his own likeness at the top.  This affords a number of hilarious sight gags on top of the lines he is provided to speak.  It is difficult to imagine a funnier clown than Dominic Rowan gives his audience.

Humor, it turns out, is all the best of the show.  In the case of Tim McMullan’s character, Jacques,
this required unusual talent to bring the character and his dry, melancholic humor to the audience across some 400 years.  McMullan’s physical features were of more than a little help.  His smile oozes amicable disdain even if one might not always quite understand the jokes that are accompanied by it.  It hardly matters, though, as his moaning delivery and rolling eyes always put them over the top.

In the 16th century, Orlando would certainly have been character upon whom all eyes settled but in the 21st Jack Laskey has to work hard to keep up with Naomi Frederick’s Rosalind.  Laskey’s fight scenes could not be realistically done (as they would have been in the original play) with safety.  They were originally supposed to establish a bond between him and a male audience that themselves likely wrestled with all the investment given to a life and death affair.  Here, during Orlando’s fight with his brother the schoolboys laughed in vague recognition at a pretend schoolyard fight.  The great wrestling match that followed was met with near silence.  It had to wait until Orlando’s comical first meeting with Rosalind that he first found sympathy with the audience.

To make his job still more challenging, Frederick plays her role superbly.  With her shag hair-cut and sharp jaw-line, she makes both an attractive, sympathetic Rosalind and a decidedly boyish Ganymede.  As soon as she and Aliena are off to the forest, the play gains focus.  Orlando becomes handsome and heroic.  Rosalind disguised as Ganymede becomes pretty much everything else.  Laura Rogers’ Celia-turned-Aliena plays the foil to Ganymede with comical body language for emphasis.  As all of this unfolds, Peter Gale plays several of the secondary roles and sings the songs with which Shakespeare graced the work.

The audience also plays its part well.  They point out stage antics to each other and laugh.  A few respond to a caress from Jacques.  A good many more laugh as he capers among them shouting his lines back toward the other characters on the stage.  They smile and sway and clap with the music at the end of the play, not an Elizabethan cell-phone to be seen.

It is worth mentioning a second time that each character is well acted.  The Opus Arte / Shakespeare’s Globe DVD of As You Like It is well worth the price of admission.

More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:

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