Globe to Globe Festival As You Like It in Georgian directed by Levan Tsuladze and performed by Marjanishvili Theatre, Saturday 19th May 2012: Evening
‘What did you think of As You Like It last night?’ my friend Aneta Mancewicz asked.
‘I thought it was really…pretty,’ I said, after a moment’s consideration.
‘Oh,’ she said, sounding a little disappointed with my response. ‘I thought it was really good. They did some very interesting things around the idea of metatheatre, for example.’
‘Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all – I meant pretty in a good way…’
So what did I mean, and why was my gut reaction to this intelligent production of As You Like It by the Marjanishvili Theatre of Georgia apparently based on something so trivial? I think it was because, after the difficult, dark tragedies coming out of Eastern Europe as part of the Globe to Globe Festival, with the Polish Macbeth’s onstage rape of Lady Macduff and the Belarusian onstage hanging of King Lear‘s daughter, Cordelia, it was such a relief to watch a performance that literally fluttered between spring pastels and autumnal russets (I still have a leaf from the Forest of Arden enclosed in my programme).
The pretty young girls danced with their beaus under umbrellas and parasols, referencing perhaps the English weather or Merchant Ivory, and in their perfect choreography conjuring up those famous images of Jack Vettriano’s dancers on the beach. In fact this production was a masterpiece of timing in every way. The usual comic shenanigans took place among the shepherds, shepherdesses and clowns in the woodland glen in a translation that structurally and visually seemed to follow Shakespeare’s text closely, so that I felt a constant sense of recognition even though I couldn’t speak a word of Georgian.
However, Aneta was right. This was a sophisticated take on the nature of theatre as well as a delightful evening’s entertainment. Ignoring the Globe’s precept to perform with minimal set, the company brought along its own stage, which they erected in the middle of the Globe stage. Surrounded by upended travel chests, doubling as changing booths and lovers’ hidey-holes, this transformed As You Like It into a play-within-a-play, so that when Jacques made the equivalent of his ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, the men and women he referred to really were ‘merely players’. As they stepped on and off their stage, they slipped in and out of roles, of genders, of love, of costumes, of time and place. Sometimes it seemed as if the actors in the play-world were rehearsing their production, as they forgot lines or missed cues, yet at other times they fully inhabited the Forest of Arden. This liminality was at the heart of the interpretation.
And underneath all its prettiness there was also a suggestion of melancholy. This is in Shakespeare, of course, but as another Groundling, Laura, noted at the interval, all this Edwardiana I saw was actually Chekhovian. A tall, sad, lonely actress separated herself from the rest of the ensemble as they first entered the stage and looked around the auditorium, cowered by what she saw. Later, she would reveal her cropped hair and swap her skirts and lady’s hat for a man’s suit. This Jacques reminded theatre blogger Shaksper of KD Lang, an observation that didn’t find its way into his detailed review. However, it was not such a strange connection, as this mannish woman’s outsider status was palpable. It was only in character that s/he seemed to have any identity at all.
The cross-dressing was clever. Unlike Julia Tamor who turned Prospero into Prospera through the casting of Helen Mirren, Jacques did not become Jacqueline. Likewise, Adam was also played by a woman, who, like Jacques, instead of turning herself into an old nurse, simply dressed as a man. Whether we were supposed to register these wo/men as drag kings or whether we were simply to see a democratic division of roles between the genders, I don’t know. I suspect that it was the latter. After all, in this play, nobody is really as they seem, from Rosalind playing Ganymede, to Actress playing Rosalind, to the real actress playing the Actress who plays Rosalind who plays Ganymede… In the world of the play-within-the-play, I think we were supposed to see Jacques and Adam as men from the moment that they stepped onto their makeshift stage, just as an early modern audience would have seen Celia and Rosalind as young women. I certainly forgot Jacques’ gender after awhile.
Jacques was not the only sad note. The rumbustious old Adam transformed into a broken old man from the moment that his and Orlando’s home was torched by the evil Oliver; this was represented by a tissue paper model and ‘The brief incandescent flame vividly demonstrated the intensity of Oliver’s hatred’ (Shaksper). I am perhaps reading too much into it, but Georgia’s recent history has been less then smooth. Mass expulsions of Georgians, Ossetians and Azhbakians took place in the early 1990s as the emerging nations and regions attempted to reassert themselves after the dissolution of the USSR, and it is less than a half a decade since the South Ossetia war. Even the autumn leaves that blew about the stage as the characters entered and left Arden were potentially as redolent of the end of things as they were of mellow fruitfulness.
Yet only potentially, for this was a production in which light outshone the dark. Orlando released his poems on balloons over Southwark, Touchstone and Audrey’s courtship was a larger than life celebration of healthy lustiness, Silvius got his Phebe, the evil Charles and his brother the Duke were permanently reconciled by dint of the fact that they were played by the same actor, and my abiding memory is of swirling leaves, and dancing umbrellas.
One final thing to note: at the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Conference earlier that day, Sonia Massai had talked of how we should no longer use the word ‘international’ as artists no longer traded in or across national consciousnesses but in a global, digitized world. Tom Bird expressed reservations about this, and noted how many national flags had been planted on the globe stage during the past weeks. Marjanishvili didn’t bring a flag with them. They didn’t need to. A mother and grandmother pushed forward to the front of the stage during the ‘curtain’ call. They thrust a bunch of flowers onstage and then a small boy, about two years old, in full Georgian national dress, to tumultuous cheers. The little boy, of course, looked completely bemused.