Last Spring, I had to opportunity to attend the Actors From The London Stage’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. At first glance, it was a deceivingly simplistic performance. The company, which rotates performers, consists of only five actors at a time who present on a stage without a set and with only minimal props. But when examining the play they were to perform, one great complication obviously arises. There are five actors, and twenty-one named characters listed in the Dramatis Personae, along with assorted “Lords, Pages, Foresters, and Attendants.” How this group of assuredly talented actors and actresses was going to cope with this plethora of persons was surely on everyone in the audience’s mind as they filed into the theatre.
Yet, overall the mood was merry. It is no small thing to have a prestigious company of actors perform a famous comedy by one of the most famous writers in the English language. The spectators were ready to watch Rosalind (Jennifer Higham) run away to the woods with her best friend, Celia (Joannah Tincey), and to watch with “sighs and tears” as Rosalind dallied and fell in love with Orlando (Dan Winter). In the words of Rosalind herself, the audience was prepared “to like as much of this play as please you…” (5.Epilogue.13-14) The play began, and fortunately ended, with riotous applause.
One of the most unique items about the Actors From the London Stage is that they are self-directed; the is no boss-man behind the scenes, and each actor has equal input into the production. While the group’s lack of a director could be seen as detrimental to an all-encompassing vision, and the miniscule company as illogical, it came out all right. Shakespeare himself has no one overarching text, and his plots verge on the absurd more often than not.
Once it became apparent from the program that each actor would be doubling with a multitude of characters, the obvious concern arose over how the audience would keep them straight. As it turned out, before they first lines were even spoken, the company arose from their chairs around the stage and cleverly (and usefully) donned their character’s defining item (a red scarf, a floral scarf, a hat with a feather, etc.) and said their name aloud. This had the unique effect of giving the audience a foretaste of things to come, leading to the audience looking forward to certain characters appearing. A popular favorite seemed to be the hippie version of Hymen, god of marriage (Robert Montford), who was equipped with a tambourine.
In fact, the portrayal of Hymen highlights a positive aspect of the massive amount of doubling as well as the autonomy of the actors. In this production, there was no “bit part.” Each actor added something to their roles, something not necessarily emphasized in the original text. This aspect was particularly amusing in the exaggerated French mannerisms of the courtier Le Beau (Robert Montford, once again), who, after Orlando bid him “fare you well,” (1.2.286), was soundly kissed on both cheeks, to Orlando’s bemusement, and the audience’s amusement.
Of course, diverting as these little encounters were, more impressive was the way in which the production handled the scenes where two characters being portrayed by one actor were on stage together. The most common method was to have the character speak their last line next to another character, who would then hold the other character’s “item” (a floral hat, for example) out in front of them, as a “placeholder.” The audience was then left to assume that the character was still standing there, looking on. Ridiculous as it may sound, it appeared to work fairly well, though it, and the entire production, relied heavily on the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
But, perhaps that was the point. Shakespeare’s plays themselves are rife with implausibility. Rather than seriously attacking or excusing the ridiculousness, the actors embraced it. When Jacques de Boys (Dan Winter, once again) entered at the last moment, and announced, “I am the second son of old Sir Rowland,” (5.4.152) the performers turned to the audience and gasped theatrically, eliciting an appreciative laugh from the spectators, who were invited not only to share in the ludicrousness, but to embrace it.
The company was not afraid to play with Shakespeare in other ways as well. In Elizabethan England, only boys could portray women. In this 21st century production, women (Highmen and Tincey again) filled the roles of attendants to Duke Senior (Patrick Miller), wearing hats bedecked with flowers, basking in the warm yellow light that represented the Green World. This is Shakespeare, after all, where gender is a very bewildering concept.
This, in the end, was the strength of the production. The audience was given the delight of witnessing what occurs when a company is willing embrace all the confusion that might arise from five autonomous actors portraying more than twenty-one unique roles, in a play whose reputation precedes it. The result was an evening of hilarity and passion in the Forest of Arden. Hopefully, some of the magic passed into the real one as well.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. G. Blackemore Evans et. Al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 1297-1354. Print.