Our Christmas present to each other this year was a day at the Pop Up Globe in Melbourne. Originally, the plan had been to see Around the Globe in 60 Minutes at 11, As You Like It at 2:00 and Henry V at 7:30 – which is a lot of plays, but how often does one get the opportunity to see that much Shakespeare and Shakespeare-adjacent theatre in one sitting? Alas, the Around the Globe show was cancelled at the last minute – but this may have been for the best, because our seats (in the Lower Gallery) were *exceedingly* hard and uncomfortable, and in fact the twinges in my buttocks and lower back kept me awake for quite a bit of last night.
The seating, however, was really my only complaint.
As You Like It was great fun. It was very lively and raunchy, full of music, and they did not miss any opportunities for humour, the naughtier the better. They also did not miss any opportunity to involve the groundlings in the story – in Touchstone’s early speech about the knight who swore by his honour that the pancakes were good and the vegemite was nought, he pointed at said ‘knight’ in the audience, and from then on, he had a constant rivalry with the dishonorable Sir Jarrod. He also had a romance going on with Lady Jane. A woman in the audience became the missing maidservant who had found the girls’ beds un-slept in, and had to answer for their absence, other audience members were singled out to represent other characters or character traits, to be hidden behind, or appealed to, to be the flock of goats, or to illustrate the Jaques’ seven ages of man speech. Any time people of low estate were mentioned, there was a gesture to the groundlings (we in the galleries were the nobility, of course).
Of course, the groundlings also got water squirted at them and paper torn up and thrown at them, and learned to back away FAST whenever the clown was on stage, as he had a tendency to spit ‘teeth’ or to ‘vomit’ water into the audience at every opportunity.
But what was really interesting about this performance was that they made the decision to have all the parts played by men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time.
This was fascinating on several levels. For one thing, it was amazing how fast I forgot that the women were being played by men. Even Antonio Te Maioha, the tall Maori man who played a very sexy Charles the Wrestler, and later the shepherdess Audrey, stopped being a big Maori guy in a dress and became Audrey with astonishing rapidity. I don’t know if this was body language, or the words they were speaking, or how the plot treated them, or what. Strangest of all, I found that Rosalind actually became more convincing as a woman once she started dressing as a man and trying to look male than she did in a dress…).
Of course, making the cast all male makes the gender dynamics even stranger than they are already. Parts of this, I wasn’t sure about – at the start, all the villains seemed to be incredibly camp, which made me wince and worry about stereotyping. Then it turned out that everyone was being quite camp, which… I don’t know what was going on there. Fortunately, they settled down reasonably fast. I still don’t know what they were trying to do with that. I wonder if it was about making sure that anyone who hadn’t been certain really definitely knew that yes, those women were being played by men in dresses? Because they were certainly capable of more subtlety than that elsewhere.
They turned Phoebe into Phoebus, which I thought was a good thing on the whole – there is enough awful sexism in that play without adding that particular relationship into the mix. I mean it’s still a terrible relationship (and Rosalind made it very clear by her gestures that she really thought Silvius would be better off out of it), but it doesn’t have that extra ickiness of knowing how marriages worked for women in that time. He kept sending Rosalind letters full of purple glitter, which made me wonder if this was inspired by a certain postal survey. The one drawback of this was that it did make that whole bit at the end, when Silvius is talking about love, and the other characters each claim that this is what they feel for the person they are in love with, while Rosalind only says ‘And I… for no woman’ make a lot less sense.
Some other nice choices they made were that Orlando twigs to Rosalind’s identity fairly early on, and while he is quite put upon at times, he seems to recognise that this is something she needs to do and goes along with it. He had a look of affection and tolerant understanding on his face whenever she did something very Rosalind-like and then pulled away as Ganymede that made this the sweetest (and most convincing) version of that relationship I’ve seen. As for Rosalind, one gets the sense that her Ganymede role takes on a life of its own. There are times when she says something as Ganymede that is clearly not what she wants to say, and she turns to the audience with a look on her face that says ‘I don’t know why I am saying this, and yet I can’t stop, what the hell?’. Which is a look I have had on my face, many times, and for which I have great sympathy. But somehow, this makes the almost ritualised formality of the ending make sense – she can’t just fall into Orlando’s arms as Ganymede, she needs the ritual of going away and coming back as Rosalind to set him aside.
I think the actor playing Celia was my favourite in this cast. His name was Stanley Andrew Jackson III, and he was a black American man (it was a fairly international cast), and very beautiful – he transformed into the female role better than anyone else on that stage, I think. Celia’s silent (and less silent) commentary on Rosalind’s actions and emotions was fantastic. She was so very gleeful about her cousin falling in love, but not at all convinced about the games she plays as Ganymede. Stephen Butterworth, who played Duke Frederick, Celia’s father, was mostly a cartoonish villain, but even he had some moments of subtlety – when Celia announces that if Rosalind is banished, she is going too, he looks utterly shaken just for a moment, and when he appears in the forest at the end, converted to a hermit, he looks less holy than mad, as though his daughter’s loss has destroyed his foundations. Orlando’s brother Oliver, played by James Haxby, also showed moments of subtlety in an otherwise entirely comic role.
Other fun bits – Orlando’s poems were really terrible modern love songs, which he composed in snatches while walking around the stage, and then sang them from the background when Rosalind read them. Michael Mahony’s Touchstone was just great, and started by singing us a very sad ballad about a man who did not switch off his phone in a theatre and was torn to pieces by the audience when it rang during the performance. There was a lot of music in this production, in fact, and all the actors had very pleasing singing voices. Much of the music was played by the flock of sheep, leading to the immortal line “No! Put your leg back on!” when one of the sheep started playing the ‘falling in love’ motif on the flute as Phoebus fell for Rosalind.
I was also fascinated by the way the actors playing women used their voices and again, I think that was an effect of psychology, because Rosalind sounded male/androgynous to me at first, but then began to sound female enough that it was a shock when she sang in a male voice. But when she came out to do the epilogue, stripping off her wig and her female garments as she turned into actor Jonathan Tynan-Moss, she sounded entirely male.
It was fabulous all round.
What I did not realise when I booked these two plays was that they were both done by precisely the same cast, so that when we came back three hours later for Henry V, we got to see the same actors in wildly different roles, and this was FASCINATING. Touchstone became the Chorus – a very active Chorus, who dressed as a cleaner, complete with cart of cleaning items (which occasionally contained things like crowns, pieces of armour etc), and occasionally became involved in the action (he fought at Harfleur with mop and spray bottle, among other things). He was the only person in modern dress in this production – everyone else was in very gorgeous 17th century garb, with lavish use of big cloaks, the better to enable lots of rapid costume changes – which set him aside nicely from the rest of the cast, and made him a good choice to play Burgundy at the end (in proper period garb for the first time in the play).
Henry V was played by Chris Huntly-Turner, who we had seen only as the foppish LeBeau (complete with outrrrrrageous French accent), and one of the naughtier sheep, in As You Like It. It took me a while to warm to him, to be honest. He did a good job of projecting power and charisma (of which more later), but he did not seem youthful enough for the role. I feel that Henry V uses his youth as a tool to get away with acting in ways that seem rash but are entirely calculated, and it’s hard to do that if you project too much maturity. He also played Henry V rather as a tragic hero in places, which was interesting. The production made the choice to cut quite a bit of the scene where he argues with Williams about how much responsibility a King bears for the souls of his subjects who die in battle. Williams loses the line about how men’s sins are on their own heads, but keeps his angry retorts, and there is no gage given for a future fight, nor any sense of possible reconciliation – Fluellen interrupts the conversation, and Williams spits on Henry as he leaves, making Henry’s soliloquy about ceremony seem very much darker. He also takes a very, very long time to get around to putting his crown back on in this scene, only picking it up as the scene ends, and not placing it back on his head.
The actor who had played Celia played the Dauphin, which was fascinating. He has a lovely baritone voice when he is not playing a woman, but since he doesn’t speak that often, and is written rather effetely, I had a lot of trouble remembering that he was male, which was… odd. Fortunately (on many, many counts) he took off his shirt in one scene, and spent the scene topless, which served as a useful aide-memoire. The actor who had played Rosalind had a lot of bit parts.
George Kemp, who had played Silvius, was Boy and Katherine in this production, and was fantastic in both roles. The scene where Katherine and her nurse are having an English lesson, which is basically a prolonged setup for a dirty joke that only works in French, was done rather well. Me and the ten other people in the audience who spoke French giggled away, while the rest of the audience seemed a bit nonplussed. Katherine then ended her recitation of all the body parts at the end of the scene by turning to the audience and saying ‘dildo, fuck, cunt’ very fast and with great relish, which, to be fair, was a pretty good approximation of the entire point of the scene, and the audience laughed accordingly.
I liked how Katherine played the scene with Henry at the end, too. Henry was playing it as a romantic wooing scene – though admittedly, a romantic wooing scene by someone who is absolutely *terrible* at being either romantic or wooing, and one cannot help but feel that the language barrier is to his advantage. From his perspective, of course, it can be romantic. Katherine, however, is clearly very aware that she gets absolutely no say in whether she will be marrying this person, and is definitely not buying what he is selling, romance-wise – her ‘I understand you very well’ is accompanied by throwing back the rose he gave her at his feet. But she seems to decide that the kiss is quite pleasing, and she definitely likes being told that she has witchcraft in her lips. So we get the romantical ending after all, which is what the groundlings were cheering for.
Speaking of the groundlings, they had quite a fascinating relationship with the play. I’ve only ever seen Henry V in film versions, where you have a big army of extras to play the French and English soldiers. Here, of course, they were trying to play two large armies with sixteen people, so there were a lot of quick changes and people who would run across the stage in red and gold English tabards and then come back from the wings in blue and silver French ones. To make up this lack, the actor playing Henry basically recruited the groundlings to his side. He gave them his speeches, he went through the crowd, shaking hands and making friends with them, and basically gave every line to them, and by the time battle was joined, they were roaring uncritically for England with very little encouragement from anyone. They were entirely bloodthirsty in his battle with the Constable of France (played by Antonio Te Maioha, who really was a pleasure to watch and is clearly their fight choreography specialist, just as Barry de Lore, who played the drunken priest and old Adam, and also Fluellen and Mistress Quickly is their clown), and howled for him, and seemed entirely undisconcerted when their front ranks were splashed with fake blood. They were also entirely partisan in his wooing of Katherine – he was clearly *their* Henry, and they bought everything he was trying to project. From the more distant perspective of the lower gallery it was almost alarming.
(The French helped this partisanship along – their embassage shouldered its way through the crowd with a ‘Out of our way, English scum’ as they entered – but really, it was mostly the charisma of the actor playing Henry.)
What made this especially interesting was that the production was not glorifying war and patriotism. The first part ended with a somber song about how blood is the God of war, and does not care whether common men are blown apart by shells, and the second part started with the same song. We saw the hanging of Bardolph (who was left dangling over the stage for a horribly long time), we saw Boy’s corpse, and we saw the French prisoners having their throats cut while they begged for mercy. When the English dead were named, Henry looked at his uncle Exeter for confirmation that his brother York has died, and got a small nod; Henry visibly swallowed his grief. He also cast a look of sympathy at Westmoreland when Sir Richard Ketly was mentioned. We were not allowed to believe that they were unscathed, despite the unrealistically small numbers of English dead.
But the groundlings seemed to be swept away by Henry’s glamour, and I found that absolutely fascinating. I wonder if I would have been equally swept away, past critical thought, had I had all that glamour aimed at me? One would like to think not, but then, I can’t imagine an audience who picks Henry V as the play to go to is an audience lacking in intelligence or critical thought, so…
Anyway. It was very draining to watch, but really fairly brilliantly done, and I am extremely glad that I insisted on seeing the two plays back to back, because I have a terrible memory for faces and I don’t think I’d have done nearly so well at comparing performances if there had been more time between them. And while the performances themselves were really excellent, I think the opportunity to see actors doing so many different things (and in Henry V, in particular, each man in his time played many parts) was an incredible highlight and a real pleasure.
If The Globe pops up near you, I would definitely recommend it – and in particular the King’s Company, which is the one we saw perform (the Queen’s Company did Othello and Much Ado about nothing, and I’m sure they were also excellent, but this bunch were just superb).