14th March 2022

Review: As You Like It

Harriet Cummings reviews As You Like It at the Lowry
Review: As You Like It
Photo: Andrew Billington.

Shakespeare, with a touch of drag…

Woke, fun and symbolic. The New Vic’s interpretation of As You Like It deserves these compliments and so many more for their contemporary performance. Being a Shakespeare fan myself, I haven’t been convinced by a modern interpretation of the classics since Maxine Peak’s performance of Hamlet. But there is no doubt that Northern Broadsides swept me away with their dreamy rendition.

When walking into the beautiful Quays Theatre, a stage canopied with hollow hanging garments did not prepare me to see one of As you Like It’s leading characters, Touchstone, to be the wonderful Joe Marrow in the ‘guise of his alter-ego Joe Morose’. The motif of dressing-up was present throughout E.M Parry’s magical set and costume design. The notion of trees to set the scene of the Forest of Arden was created with hat stands, which I always imagine stood in the entrance of an old manor house. The costume rail was fixed on stage for most of the performance, in a practical light; it aided the on-stage costume changes, but the staging’s unavoidable theme of eccentric garb posed unquestionable symbolism.

Parry addressed their creative decisions in their programme’s feature: “No Clocks in the Forest, Queer Time in Arden”, they say: “I picture Arden as a place when time blurs, and historical periods co-exist […] In our version of Arden, when the characters escape to the forest, they go through the wardrobe, Narnia-like, into a giant dressing-up box of queer possibility, a place where time , gender, sexuality, love, class and all the hierarchies and binaries of identity and power can be questioned and turned upside down”.

There is no doubt that Parry’s efforts were carried through, so crisp and elegantly, truly capturing the notions of the play both through an old and modern lens.

The courtiers begin the story in their natural habitat. In the first two acts we see how the characters interact before the sultry essence of the forest encourages their developing identities. Here, Isobel Coward’s (Nicer than Orange Squash, Home Girl) performance of Celia posed subtle jealousy towards her cousin’s love interest, Orlando (Shaban Dar, Last Quizmas). I found that Celia and Rosalind’s (EM Williams: Dream, My Brilliant Friend) intimacy on stage, coupled with yearning looks from Celia, played with the sexual, conventionally heterosexual, boundaries of their characters’ relationship. Coward’s performance of Celia shared a jealous tone towards her cousin’s love interest, Orlando. A fresh, intriguing notion I’ve not picked up
reading/watching the play before.

There is no doubt that Laurie Sansom’s interpretation of this classic play is clever. He clearly isn’t shy of straying away from the traditional. The casting of Joe Marrow as Touchstone was new, bold, and entertaining. Where drag may not seem traditional, cross-dressing obviously plays a pivotal role in the performance of all plays of the Shakespearean era. Additionally, with As You Like It, being one of Shakespeare’s most pivotal cross-dressing narratives (along with Twelfth Night), Sansom found a whole new way to play with the fluidity of conventions attached to gender through time.

This rendition took old, over-thought-about themes from the play and transpired them in an intriguing new light. It may not have been to the favour of some of the older audience members; my captivation was undisturbed by the odd snore but nevertheless a brilliant play. Especially for a Shakespeare beginner.

As You Like it has now finished its run at the Lowry but will be touring the UK until July.

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