The Globe brings its magic to Kilkenny
The Globe Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’ is set to take centre stage at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival. In advance of its arrival, EILEEN BATTERSBYvisited the 17th century Groomsbridge Place in England to watch the show on home ground
BROTHERLY LOVE is not exactly flourishing in the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s astutely realistic comedy As You Like It. Orlando, youngest son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, bitterly picks apples in his brother’s orchard while voicing his resentment against the dastardly Oliver: “Besides this nothing that he so plentifully gives me,” complains Orlando to the faithful old servant Adam, “the spirit of my father, which . . . begins to mutiny against this servitude,” he says with an increasingly powerful voice.
Orlando has had enough and is no longer afraid of his villainous sibling and the pair quickly come to blows. No sooner has Orlando stormed off, followed by Adam, when news of further fraternal strife is announced. “The old Duke is banished by his younger brother the new Duke, and three or four loving lords have put themselves into voluntary exile with him . . .” Luckily for Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke, her cousin Celia, the usurper’s child, is her best friend. So Rosalind has been able to remain living with her at court.
The Globe Theatre’s mercurial production of As You Like It which comes to the Kilkenny Arts Festival from August 10th until August 19th had just returned from performing in Austria when it arrived in the grounds of Groombridge Place, a 17th-century moated manor house in Kent, just inside the Surrey border. It is a sunny summer’s evening, so unexpectedly balmy that most of the audience appear to have come in groups, intent on showing how the art of picnicking should be done.
Tablecloths, wine glasses, platters of assorted cheeses and designer chocolates are being arranged on the small tables that have materialised out of the boots of reliable family cars.
Although the mood is relaxed, rather party-like, watch is being maintained on the large wooden container that has been discreetly positioned behind the simple stage. A small bust of Shakespeare, placed on top of the container, overlooks the scene. The heavily-wooded surroundings easily suggest the Forest of Arden.
Groombridge is also home to an unusually vocal number of peacocks. Their rasping cries provide an intermittent soundtrack shared with the calls of the birds of prey kept at the Raptor Centre in the grounds. The American eagle is feeding and may be preoccupied, but its somewhat smaller African counterpart is alert to all sounds and movement. The house is familiar because it was used as the Bennet home in Joe Wright’s 2005 film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
A trumpet is thrust out of a small window at the side of the wooden box. It gives a sharp blast, intended to call the audience to attention and the company makes its entrance. Initially we could be watching a group of Victorian tourists busily posing for holiday snaps. Right from the start the Globe players make an emphatic point: Shakespeare’s theatre was committed to ensemble playing, not diva-like individual turns. Shakespeare saw his plays as organic entities that came to life on the move. In his day actors really did travel about as a troupe of players.
No matter how well you may think you know As You Like It, believed to have been first performed in 1599 or 1600, the Globe approach is fresh and lively. The eight performers interact with great good humour and terrific timing; three of the actors play multiple roles.
Above all, Shakespeare considered music vital to theatre and As You Like It has more songs than any other Shakespeare play. Not only do the players sing and dance, they play a variety of instruments. Olly Fox, the Globe musical director, has worked wonders with an admittedly gifted cast. The versatile Tobias Beer playing three parts, not only sings very sweetly, he is a fine violinist and is as convincingly menacing as Le Beau the courtier as he is a buffoonishly adoring Silvius, besotted with Phebe.
In their elegant black dresses, Rosalind and Celia look like demure ladies but conduct themselves like precociously confident schoolgirls – Deirdre Mullins and Beth Park have obvious rapport. Both swoon over the handsome Orlando as he triumphs in a no-holds barred comic wrestling match that defies all known rules of any sport. The light heartedness suddenly evaporates as the Duke dismisses Rosalind with a chill warning: “Within these ten days if that thou beest found/So near our public court as twenty miles, Thou diest for it.” The shift in tone is true of the play.
Love may be funny yet life itself is a deadly serious business, as Jacques a courtier and resident disillusioned idealist tends to remind everyone: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”
It is Jacques, played in this production by Emma Pallant as a world-weary Virginia Woolf figure, who delivers one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They all have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Meanwhile, Rosalind and Celia having fled the court are travelling with Will Mannering’s Touchstone, a clown with attitude who favours natty suits and also serves as a master of ceremonies of sorts, addressing the audience. The action is fast-moving and fluid, as are the character changes. The open-air setting heightens the improvisational flair that the performers bring to the text. Even the random cries of the peacocks are cleverly acknowledged and are opportunistically incorporated into the performance. All the exciting uncertainty of young love is articulated by the likeable pairing of this Globe production’s youthful Orlando and Rosalind.
Will Featherstone’s Orlando comes into his own as the lovesick suitor penning bad poems which he has stuck to various trees celebrating her virtues. Elsewhere he has merely hacked her name on to the trunks. When Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, bluntly informs him: “There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving ‘Rosalind’ on their barks, hangs odes upon hawthorns, and elegies on brambles” it is impossible not to feel sympathy for him. Equally, Rosalind’s delight in her new-found power is utterly believable.
It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without complications, marriages and 11th hour reconciliations: Phebe the shepherdess casts her “bulging” eyes on the fair Ganymede yet is sufficiently shrewd not to reject Silvius when the objective of her heated desires turns out to be Rosalind. The Groombridge audience loved the show. “Shakespeare as he should be played” was the communal opinion.
This Globe production is alive with wit and artistry as well as music and magic. Every word is delivered with clarity. Subtle cuts have been made, amounting to about 20 minutes. The production, which has also travelled to Denmark and after Kilkenny has further UK dates before returning to London and home at the Globe Theatre, showcases not only the art and stage craft of Shakespeare but also his formidable intelligence. It is worth noting that the Globe Theatre receives no state funding, it has no UK arts council grant.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival, famous for its diversity and panache, balancing the performing arts with literature and visual art, has always had a strong classical music element. This year’s programme includes English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s only opera, Dido and Aeneas (1688). Ticket demand for the Globe production of As You Like It, running from the 10th to the 19th, has already resulted in an extra performance being added. The signs are there for all to read: Get thee to Kilkenny.