When it's on form Shakespeare's Globe offers the best value theatre in London. For five pounds you can stand as a groundling (much better than being seated, for reasons I shall explain) and see Shakespeare's plays performed in a theatre which he would probably recognise. On a warm summer's evening when the play works, there's no better place to be. During its first decade under the inspired leadership of Mark Rylance it was unfairly dismissed by some critics who should have known better as a theatre for tourists seeking a nostalgic Shakespeare experience. In fact it has always been an innovative place where directors have been encouraged to experiment rather than play safe. There have been quite a few duds, but lots of successes as well, and the pattern continues under his successor Dominic Dromgoole. To direct this production he hired a rising star -- Thea Sharrock, who's best known for giving a new lease of life to 20th century plays, notably The Emperor Jones which she first directed at the tiny Gate theatre and then reprised on the big Olivier stage at the National. After seeing this in 2007 I wrote that I was keen to see Sharrock have a go at Shakespeare, and this is the result: an inspired production in which the director's ego is kept under wraps but some excellent actors get a chance to really shine. Top of the list for me is Laura Rogers as Celia, who transforms the role of Rosalind's slightly tedious sidekick into something very funny and quite special. When she and Naomi Frederick (Rosalind) are on stage together they are a brilliant double act, but when Celia disappears it is a bit like French without Saunders, or vice versa. Whatever Laura Rogers has, it should be bottled and sold to actresses everywhere. Her Celia is so involved in Rosalind's adventure with Orlando that one suspects she wants the tousle-haired Jack Laskey for herself. At every twist and turn she reacts with a raised eyebrow, a despairing hand gesture or a briskly wagging finger as she tries desperately to keep her cross-dressing friend on track. It's one of the funniest performances I have seen on stage for a quite a while, and I began to wonder where else this RADA-trained actress has been working. Her showreel on Youtube contains some clunkily written scenes from TV serials such as Holby City, but I am delighted to see she's been getting some good comic parts as well, including Sorrel Bliss in Hay Fever at Chichester and the vicar's wife in See How They Run at Manchester Royal Exchange. So I'm delighted to do anything I can to speed up her path to damehood. Laura, you are a star.
As in Twelfth Night, the cross-dressing scenes in As You Like It where a girl disguises herself as a boy to flirt with the man she loves should deliver a strong erotic charge, whatever the gender of the performers. Unfortunately the love scenes between Naomi Frederick and Jack Laskey don't quite deliver. Neither seems truly smitten by the other, and Frederick, while brisk and lively, doesn't quite do justice to the complexity of Rosalind's character. Ganymede's leather breeches and jerkin seem to suit her far better than a dress, so the clumsiness and naivete of Rosalind's putting on disguise are missing; there's no sense of a girl skating on thin ice and coming perilously close to falling through. This Rosalind seems so much in control and on top of the situation that her sudden swoon seems out of character. I missed the recent much-reviewed London production of this play which paired Helen McCrory and Sienna Miller, but I did see Victoria Hamilton's outstanding Rosalind and Declan Donnellan's all-male version with Adrian Lester in the part. Perhaps if I had never seen them, I would be better placed to enjoy Naomi Frederick in the same role. She's good, but a bit one-dimensional.
The other reason why Thea Sharrock's production is worth seeing is the outstanding double act of Tim McMullan as Jaques and Dominic Rowan as Touchstone. Each of them has been given the space to develop a completely clear and coherent view of their parts, and more importantly, a way of interacting with the audience that makes the most of the opportunities the Globe offers. McMullen is sonorous, silky, world-weary and slightly camp while Rowan is deadpan funny, with a touch of his namesake Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder. Most of the small parts are well acted, with standout performances from Jade Williams as Phebe and Sophie Duval as Audrey. By the end of the play the cast have the audience eating out of their hands, and even applauding between scenes.
On a warm sunny evening in late June I saw a very successful amateur production of this play by Sevenoaks Shakespeare Society. The actors had only a few nearby sheep to compete with, as they were performing in the open air on the lawn of a country pub surrounded by fields. It was a magical setting. At the Globe, by contrast, there's not much that's rural about Dick Bird's design, which relies on a few pillars and poles at the back of the stage to suggest the Forest of Arden. Designers are of course rightly wary of returning to the the Victorian realism of real forests and real animals. But the more I go to the Globe, the more I feel that stage designers and their tricks are fairly superfluous there. The limitations of the Shakespearean thrust stage mean that scenery and set have to be kept to a minimum; ideally this is a venue for what Peter Brook called 'rough theatre', a concept which Mark Rylance understood very well. Since Dromgoole took over at the Globe there has been an unfortunate tendency towards over-designed sets, with the added complication that sightlines are inevitably spoiled when the stage is extended forwards into the standing area. It's fine for the groundlings, who find themselves closer than ever to the centre of the action, but disastrous for anyone who has bought higher-priced tickets in the top gallery, particularly the rear rows. Tim McMullen's beautifully played opening scene as Jaques would have been completely obscured to anyone in these seats. Last year in Lucy Bailey's production of Timon of Athens we had overhead acrobats pretending to be birds crawling around in nets, an unnecessary piece of high-concept visual elaboration. It's not the search for some kind of unachievable historical authenticity which makes this kind of thing undesirable, just the fact that the Globe stage is quite large enough already for acting on. Directors should take the theatre as they find it, rather than trying to reshape it. Less is more (how many times do I find myself repeating that?)