Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow, and on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
COVID had kept Northern Broadsides away from York since 2019, rudely curtailing Quality Street’s travels before the Theatre Royal run in 2020.
York’s wait to see a Laurie Sansom production following his appointment as artistic director in 2019 finally ended on Wednesday, with the sight of Sansom himself on stage.
Always a nervous moment: a director standing on the boards. Would he be delivering last-minute bad news? Thankfully not, instead expressing his delight at Broadsides being back in York, before announcing a couple of Covid-enforced substitutions after last week’s positive tests scuppered the Stephen Joseph Theatre run.
Jo Patmore would be stepping up from Amiens and William duties to stand in for Isobel Coward as devoted cousin Celia. Robin Simpson, his Ugly Sisters double act with Paul Hawkyard still fresh in the mind from the Theatre Royal’s Cinderella pantomime, would play the melancholic Jacques, a still grave but more bookish figure with safety-net book in hand after filling in at short notice for Adam Kashmiry.
Ironically, Simpson almost missed out on his week under the lights, Sansom revealing that he had damaged his knee ahead of the first night and would take to the stage with a pronounced limp and a stick. Limp, yes, stick, no, as it turned out; the book being his more important crutch.
As You Like It was dismissed as a mere crowd-pleaser by George Bernard Shaw, a gibe that suggests it is an inferior work, made for laughs rather than weightier impact. In truth, aside from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, it has always been nothing more than an As You Only Quite Like It play, one that demands graft as much as craft from its cast.
What Laurie Sansom has done, however, is to make it a play for today, newly resonating with our pandemic-shadowed times in its celebration of (our return to) the joys of live performance; the right to work out who you are and who you want to be, and the heightened appreciation of the transformative power of the natural world. In a nutshell, what better time to go wild in the country in a tale of mistaken identities and changing attitudes.
From Sansom’s impromptu stage announcement onwards, his production is marked by informality, with a flexibility to the delivery of Shakespeare’s text to rival the gender fluidity.
Although the play’s initial tone is determined by the rigidity of Duke Frederick’s macho court, the mood is set by Joe Morrow’s drag-queen Touchstone, given freedom to roam, to improvise, as he would in his other lives as cabaret turn Joe Morose and Café de Paris master of ceremonies.
Sansom modernises the wrestling clash, bringing it into the WWF age with American- accented entries, Bailey Brook’s Charles becoming Chainsaw Charles and Shaban Dar’s Orlando adding ‘Dynamite’ to his moniker.
Morrow’s Broadsides debut is an utter joy, born for the centre stage, quick on the quips and asides, his voice a delicious tease throughout, playing the wise fool.
Elsewhere, this production revolves around an EM and an E.M.: namely non-binary actor EM Williams’s Rosalind, banished from the court, and duly taking the guise of a boy once in the Forest of Arden, and E.M. Parry, a designer who specialises in work that “centres Queer bodies and narratives”.
Parry delivers fabulous costumes, with a flourish reminiscent of Lez Brotherston, while the forest takes the form of hatstands, both a fashion statement and a bravura way to represent the wooded natural world and our roles as mere players going through the costume changes of life.
Williams’s Rosalind is teased in Morrow’s banter for being so serious, and indeed Williams’s performance is intense, earnest, yet lithely energetic and liberated too, before turning into Puck for the epilogue.
Reuben Johnson’s Oliver, Dar’s Orlando, Ali Gadema’s Duke Frederick and Patmore’s Celia keep the story moving; Simpson’s Jacques steps in with his glum commentary, breaking down the fourth wall once to acknowledge coming in too soon for his next line.
Morrow makes light of being the conductor for so much of the comedy, albeit aided by Brook’s Silvius and Gemma Dobson’s Phoebe. An out-of-the-blue cameo by three cast members as misbehaving sheep draws the biggest laughter, nudging towards pantomime in a scene orchestrated by Morrow seemingly on the hoof.
Tellingly, it is not the only moment where Morrow’s own wit is funnier to modern ears than Shakespeare’s script, although he is equally adept at spinning the Bard’s words like plates.
Robert Bentall’s music is industrial and harsh for the court, beautifully pastoral for the forest, adding to the contrast. Ultimately, Sansom’s As You Like It is more successful as a visual delight and as a piece of political theatre in tune with cultural and social issues in its diverse casting and sensibilities than as a comedy, Morrow aside. That makes it a better play for today. Job done.
Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Halifax, 01422 849 227 or theviaducttheatre.co.uk; Doncaster, 01302 303959 or castindoncaster.com; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.