“Get your bags off the ground, mate.” Whispers bounced among lips as we scrambled to sweep our bags off the cobbled ground to clear the way for Orlando’s iconic fight scene, which took place in the middle of us standing folk.
In just one week, the Globe Theatre’s production of As You Like It will come to a close after a ten-week run as part of the Globe’s 2023 Summer Series.
If you spend roughly five minutes scrolling through reviews of the show, you’ll find they are somewhat mixed. Amid the positive reactions, commending the performance’s vibrant acting, costumes, and inclusive casting, there is a scattering of reviewers disappointed by the production’s incorporation of modern elements - the jokes, gestures, song selection, and so on. They take issue with the overall lack of tradition. Yet, considering that this play ends with a literal deus ex-machina (which in this production is performed by a drag queen), these critics seem to have missed a crucial point of the play: it is, as advertised, a “celebration of love, freedom and friendship.”
This is not a play meant to be taken seriously; it is a delightful romp through the forest of Arden, a place where love is found and lost in the midst of wonderful contemporary dance numbers. The show begins with a skirmish between two brothers, as the younger Orlando (Isabel Adomakoh Young) attempts to prove himself in a boxing match. He wins not only the match but also the affections of Rosalind (Nina Bowers), the daughter of a banished duke. Following this, Rosalind is expelled from court and leaves with her best friend Celia (Macy-Jacob Seelochan). As two young women from noble lineage, they understand that traveling alone is a dangerous business and consequently disguise themselves “in poor and mean attire” before venturing into the Forest of Arden. Rosalind takes extra precaution and dresses as a man, choosing the name Ganymede as her alias. In the forest, they meet many characters such as Jaques (Alex Austin), who delivers the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue; Phebe (Jessica Alade) and Silvius (Mika Onyx Johnson), two love-struck shepherds; and Orlando, the young man Rosalind had fallen in love with several scenes earlier. As you might expect from a Shakespearean comedy, hijinks ensue as the characters fall in and out of love.
Despite its silliness, however, the play portrays numerous relatable scenarios. We have all, like Rosalind, been in love to the point of seeming delusional to those around us. We’ve all, like Celia, had to put up with that delusionally in-love friend who we support through the best of times and the worst of times. Like Orlando, many of us have felt so strongly about someone that it drives us to profess our feelings in bold, somewhat impractical ways—like writing a hundred love poems and hanging them on trees throughout the forest. Like Silvius and Phebe, we’ve all experienced unrequited love and maintained the hope that maybe, just maybe, they might come around and love us back someday. The scenarios and characters represented on the stage are dramatized examples of situations we know all too well, giving the play a light punch of familiarity that calls us to consider our own emotions and reactions.
Without too much imagination, you can envision yourself and those you know as the players on the stage. The moment in which Celia flips Orlando the finger after he upset Rosalind took me back to a fling I once had, when my own friend had done the same (both my ex-fling and Orlando deserved it). Rosalind dodging the persistent Phoebe was reminiscent of my younger brother dodging the eyes of girls in middle school. Even the dance numbers, which included songs by pop artists like Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars, formed a caricature of my own high school dances, when we were all smitten at one glance from that one person across the room.
These characters were all too familiar to our lives. Even the hyperbolized courting and Rosalind’s lines were delivered with such pathos and genuineness that I couldn’t help but think of Rupi Kaur’s controversial performances in poetry culture today—a flirting with contemporary lyric poetry that, although unsettling at times to any academic poetry consumer, may nonetheless add to the modern accessibility of Shakespeare just as this production's incorporation of Bruno Mars does.
The play, while silly, does not sacrifice any of its hard hitting themes, which is aided by the minimalist set design and asymmetrical jacobean-style costumes. The stage was mostly barren aside from a handful of small, movable set pieces and a clothing line that was strung with changing words and phrases throughout the show. The more time the characters spend in the forest of Arden, the more unruly their costumes become, demonstrating the visible representation of the freedom of love and gender expression that they experience.
"It transformed the Globe Theatre into a celebration not only of love, but the representation and inclusion of queer identities."
The crossdressing and gender identity that this play holds central to its core is naturally an inherent staple of this particular Shakespearean play, and it would be folly not to acknowledge the grace and conscientiousness with which it was done. This production seized the opportunity to make the play as diverse and inclusive as possible; it specifically celebrates queer identities through casting openly queer actors, and through its fluid treatment of gender identities within the show. It consequently transformed the Globe Theatre into a celebration not only of love, but the representation and inclusion of queer identities.
As we left the theater after the final bow, above our heads hung a garland of letters spelling out “THERE ARE MORE SPECIES OF LOVE THAN YOU KNOW HOW TO COUNT.” We highly recommend the show that left us laughing, smiling, and reminiscing on our own silly, and yet so visceral, loves.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.
Images used with thanks to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.