'The Tempest' and 'As You Like It' at The Globe are charming, stripped-down Shakespeare
If you're feeling anxious about returning to the theatre, Shakespeare's Globe is really the perfect compromise: outdoors and socially distanced, the only conspicuous difference from the usual configuration, roped-off rows aside, is the presence of seating in the area normally packed with standing groundlings. But the Globe Touring Company is back outdoors, with two outdoor-set plays. The Tempest and As You Like It share a cast and a costume-trunk aesthetic (excellently versatile costumes designed by Andrew D. Edwards), made for easy travel though they won't actually be touring. Although the website expresses hope that eventually these productions will travel the UK, for now they are Southwark-based.
After a year and a half of confusion and chaos, it feels telling to return with two plays about storytellers, characters who seek to seize control of their lives by orchestrating narratives—of revenge, of romance—to mixed success. People are people, after all, and cannot always be controlled or contained.
The Tempest is marshalled by Mark Desebrock's compelling Prospero, a smoother and more anxious take on the exiled sorcerer who seems primarily defined by his need to be understood. Desebrock does not smooth over Prospero's contradictions, however, allowing him to be furious, vengeful, and gentle by turns. He knows how to work the Globe stage, pacing and playing outwards whilst still maintaining connection to his fellow actors, even when he isn't looking at them.
The Globe stage's size and shape tends to demand this kind of staging, with actors across productions and directors frequently roaming to fill the space and play to all sides of the audience. Director Brenden O'Hea uses this house style to smoothly cover the fact that the actors aren't allowed to touch one another—a COVID safety necessity that I genuinely didn't notice until nearly three-quarters of the way through the play. Even the encounters of the lovers, Miranda (Sara Lessore) and Ferdinand (Tom Chapman), which would seem to demand touch, are sufficiently delicately staged that the absence of contact isn't distracting or obvious.
The constraints are a little more obvious in As You Like It, which features a character attempting to strangle his brother and a wrestling match within the first few scenes. The cuts to the text seem to suggest a desire to skip past all the preamble and get to the most famous parts of the play—four sets of lovers wooing one another in a forest—as quickly as possible. It's an understandable aim, since the production really takes off when Emma Ernest takes centre stage as Rosalind, attempting to teach her beloved Orlando (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) how to be a fitting lover. But the rapid pace of the first scenes mean we barely know this duo by the time we need to believe in their love, though both Ernest and Ardern-Sodje are charming enough to mostly make up for it.
Both plays suffer somewhat from pacing problems, though in opposite directions: The Tempest feels oddly slow at times, while As You Like It rushes. But both are shaped with sparkling clarity, every line, speech, and scene given its due. There's definitely some appeal in this extremely straightforward presentation, particularly for audiences who don't already know the plays. But the placement of the text front-and-centre also lays bare all the things the productions do not excavate, from the stark colonial language of The Tempest to the muddle of queer desire that Orlando feels for Rosalind in disguise. But if all you want after is a long year is simply the sounds of some Shakespeare, without fuss or worry, the Globe has what you need.
As You Like It and The Tempest are running at Shakespeare's Globe through 29 August.
Photo credit: Stephen Ardern-Sodje in The Tempest and Emma Ernest in As You Like It (Photos by Marc Brenner)
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