Yes, it was charming. That's not an adjective I often use in the theatre, and it's probably inadequate to explain the appeal of this highly sophisticated Georgian production at Shakespeare's Globe. On Friday afternoon it triggered an exceptionally warm response from the audience despite making very few concessions to the Globe's unique space.
Imagine a deconstructed Shakespeare built around a small stage, with the actors and their costumes jumping on to play their parts, then returning to the sidelines to relax, play chess, gossip, try on their costumes, flirt with each other and wait for their next entrance. Sometimes they prompt each other when lines go missing; sometimes they act as a human trampoline during stage fights; sometimes they supply props or sprinkle their fellow actors with leaves. It's a wonderfully creative and playful way of dissolving the boundaries between 'on stage' and 'off stage'. There are elements of Michael Frayn's Noises Off, though the interplay between the two elements here is more seamless. There are also elements of whimsy that seem to draw on classic Georgian black and white films, or on French cinema of half a century ago. I can't be precise about the visual images, but there are umbrellas, linen suits and costumes with an echo of the commedia dell'arte. It owes something to Brecht, but in the visual clowning it owes even more to Jacques Tati.
There is some excellent acting in this production, particularly from flame-haired Ketevan Shatirishvili as Rosalind and Nika Kuchava as Orlando, well supported by Nato Kakhidze as Celia. The comedy is fast, physical, and very inventive, particularly when Audrey and the lubricious Touchstone begin milking a ewe. When Orlando wins his wrestling bout against Charles, he beats the hell out of a life-size rag doll. The forest yokels Audrey, Phoebe and their swains are excellent, and the moment when Orlando and Rosalind fall in love is marked by the tinkle of triangles.
I have only two reservations. This is a production that faces in one direction only -- straight ahead. So anyone sitting round the sides of the audience won't get to see much. And there's very little attempt to interact with the audience. As Jaques, Nata Murvanidze conveys an exquisite sense of melancholy but she makes eye contact only with her fellow actors. For me, Jaques should be a link between the play and the audience, as Tim McMullan was in the Globe's own excellent version a few years back. No doubt this production was conceived for a completely different theatre, but the relationship with the groundlings, so important in this open-air daylight space, has to wait until the final dance and curtain call to really take off. On the other hand, the director's play-within-a-play concept fits the Globe like a glove. As a bit of a curmudgeon, I like to feel I am impervious to mere charm, but in the end I was helpless to resist it.