The only thing Shakespeare liked more than naming characters “Antonio” was playing with gender—Portia names herself Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice, Viola names herself Cesario in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind names herself after Zeus’s mythical male consort, Ganymede, in As You Like It. The Globe’s recent production of As You Like It ratchets the show’s gender play and gay undertones up to a hundred with gender–blind casting, a feature that is not only the production’s gimmick, but blended in seamlessly with the themes of the play that I almost forgot not all productions of the show are cast in such a way. Though it has sadly ended its run, one of the most fun things I have done in my time in London was go to The Globe’s As You Like It, and it made me hope for not only more productions that centralize fun, but also more theatergoing experiences that centralize community.
I scrambled into my seat about a minute after the show had actually started. Due to a Millennium Bridge closure that I had not known about beforehand, I had to run about half a mile to try and wheeze my way into The Globe. My lack of success worried me; I assumed The Globe had a harsh latecomers policy because, well, Shakespeare.
Thankfully, I was wrong, and your cool English teacher—who delighted in telling you about how Shakespeare was full of dick jokes and was entirely for the people—was right. A kind employee in holiday red showed me to my seat, and I slid past my assigned discounted “obstructed view” seat and into the empty, unobstructed view one right next to it. I had been worried about watching two hours of Shakespeare standing on the ground in below freezing temperatures and spent an extra ten pounds on the ability to rest my legs.
Oh how wrong I was to be so weak. The groundlings mingled with strangers, cheersed plastic cups full of overpriced beer, and accepted gifts eagerly from smiling actors who interacted delightedly with their audience. Though a strong chill rippled off the Thames and through the open–air theater, it was impossible to feel anything other than warmth when the crowd cheered for Jacques’ iconic “all the world’s a stage” monologue, or for the delightfully layered lesbian overtones and genderplay of Rosalind: disguised as a man, she kisses Orlando, a male character played by a female actress. I went alone, armed with nothing but a hastily–purchased cup of white wine and a deep love for the text, but found myself feeling charmingly surrounded by friends by the time the show drew to a close.
The production itself was, in a word, fun. The acting was fantastic, particularly from Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Orlando and Macy–Jacob Seelochan’s Celia (who provided the single most captivating flip of the bird I have ever seen in my life at one point in the show), even if—and no offense to the Bard—some of the storylines in the show, such as the whole Phoebe ordeal, are less than compelling. The costumes were gaudy and vibrant, a nice contrast to The Globe’s eternally minimalist set design. The Globe doesn’t have traditional understudies, so I was unable to find the name of the actress who filled in for the role of Touchstone at the performance I saw, but she acknowledged the script in her hand with in–character aplomb, leaning entertainingly on the fourth wall without shattering it.
At times, the playfulness of the show somewhat overshadowed the genuine depth in the source material. This production’s irony–poisoned–for–the–modern–age Jacques’ “all the world” monologue was captivating, and has led to a round of applause by the audience, but was less impactful than it could have been had the character been played a bit more seriously. To bring up the Phoebe of it all again, there was a slight attitude of “well, we’re having fun, and this is about Rosalind and Orlando anyway” passivity tossed at the storyline that baffled me amidst a production filled with earnest engagement with love and passion.
Ultimately, though, those slight shortcomings didn’t truly harm the production. The only thing that stuck out to me as entirely strange was the random incorporation of modern–day songs into the production. Perhaps I’m biased because I’m generally against jukebox musicals; or because I thought the original songs in the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park musical production of As You Like It were kind of terrible. Either way, I’d prefer to listen to “Pynk” sung by Janelle Monáe in my headphones, not by a Shakespearean troupe on stage.
But even with that caveat, I absolutely love The Globe’s production of As You Like It. It was joyous, free, and welcoming. Even more so than watching the actors, I had a fantastic time watching the groundlings enjoy the show. In particular, I was delighted to see how many people of my age were in attendance. Everywhere I looked there was a group of people in their late teens or early twenties chatting with strangers, making new friends, enjoying the show. The Globe truly made the Forest of Arden feel like a place you could find and reinvent yourself.
In short, is this the most emotionally nuanced take on a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen? No, but it isn't trying to be, and it doesn't have to be. It adds a delicious and entirely textually–appropriate layer of gender play with its casting, and it leans into the deeply fun elements of the show that you can’t help but raise a toast to. The costumes quite literally shine—there were many sequins to be seen—and the way the cast played with the audience and the theater’s space is charming.
But above all, the best part of this production was how believable the instant bonds between characters felt, and how those bonds have replicated themselves in the audience. Not only was there real chemistry between the actors, and not only did the themes of the show shine all the more brightly through the lens of its genderblind casting, but The Globe as a venue fostered a cheery amiability between strangers. As You Like It made me appreciate the pure fun that comes from theater, and the pure joy you can get from a one–night friendship with a stranger watching it alongside you.