As You Like It review – Northern Broadsides stage a dreamy quest | Theatre


A colourful cast of characters dance round the maypole at the end of Laurie Sansom’s gender-quizzical staging. Designer EM Parry fits them out with a dressing-up box of mix-and-match outfits: sheepskin coat, cowboy hat, naval tunic, wedding veil, bodice and ruff. It is not quite an Adam and the Ants video but it has a new-romantic sense of flamboyance and possibility. There are bare chests and crinoline underskirts.

It is the culmination of a Northern Broadsides production of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy that is all about appearances. It takes place in a forest of hat stands beneath a canopy of dresses; a changing room where everyone is changed.

Here, the play’s search for romantic partnership is also a quest for identity – so often determined by what we wear. It could be the suit of shimmering gold sported by a hirsute Ali Gadema as Duke Frederick or the colourful cabaret outfits shown off by Joe Morrow’s Touchstone.

Charming … EM Williams with Shaban Dar as Orlando.
Charming … EM Williams with Shaban Dar as Orlando. Photograph: Andrew Billington

There is something dreamlike about this. Frequently in this languid, autumnal production, Sansom fills the stage with people, bathed in a hazy light, more imaginary than real. The gorgeous accent of Adam Kashmiry’s Jacques, forged in Alexandria and Glasgow, adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. Only Rosalind and Celia are in control. Everyone else is buffeted around.

In this way, the production seems to be telling its own story. Shakespeare’s narrative, which resolves with a series of heterosexual couplings, is at odds with the non-binary ethos of the show. It’s not that the playwright himself didn’t play games with identity; a boy actor would have played Rosalind who pretends to be man who role-plays as a woman. It’s that the narrative conventions are too straight for this production.

Here, the most compelling relationship is between Rosalind, a playful, expressive EM Williams, and Celia, a joyful, sensitive Isobel Coward. Celia’s declaration that “thou and I am one” when the two are banished into the Forest of Arden overshadows even the charming courtship between Rosalind and Shaban Dar’s Orlando.

It means that when Rosalind and Celia leave the stage to prepare for the big reveal, you’re disappointed when they don’t return as one of the happy couples.

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