Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It is the first production I’ve seen staged in the round at The Lowry’s Quays Theatre, and it’s a layout that certainly suits both venue and play. It feels more novel and intimate than a proscenium arch staging, which suits the subversiveness of this retelling, and as a bonus it’s great to see other audience members’ reactions to the action.
In Northern Broadsides’ 30th anniversary year, the company are returning to their roots, disrupting traditional expectations of Shakespeare by performing it in a variety of Northern accents. The diversity of the cast, not just visually, but also in the background and experience of the performers, adds to the richness and interest of the production. This is epitomised in the casting of a non-binary actor as Rosalind – EM Williams convinces as both the heroine and her disguise, Ganymede, exuding energy and strength of purpose.
The plot of As You Like It reads like a hybrid of several of Shakespeare’s other works. It has A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s anarchic forest setting, The Tempest’s political intrigue and of course, cross-dressing from Twelfth Night, all of which represent normal world order being turned on its head.
Nowhere is this topsy-turviness more apparent in this production than in the use of costume. E.M. Parry’s design is a dressing up box mixture of tracksuits, underwear, full skirts and tailoring, which becomes more outlandish and less gendered as the play progresses and the misrule of the forest takes hold.
Characters dress and undress onstage, garments are suspended overhead on wires, and Rosalind and Celia frequently exit the stage by diving through a crowded costume rail. The Forest of Arden is created with old-fashioned wooden hat stands, which move around the characters in staging reminiscent of Sally Cookson’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Every ounce of available comedy is squeezed from the action in this production; Corin’s flock of bleating sheep is played by members of the cast on all fours, and Jo Patmore puts in a hilarious turn as a swaggering, puffer-jacketed William. But it is Joe Morrow who, as the fool Touchstone, is the most natural comedian – unsurprising given his background in cabaret performance and compering. Morrow’s improvised asides and natural rapport with the audience lead to the play’s funniest moments; his faux-philosophical exchange with Corin (Claire Hackett) is a definite highlight.
Other performer’s talents feed into the tapestry of the play, from Jo Patmore’s gorgeous acoustic renditions of its famous songs to EM Williams’ brief aerial work using one of the hat stand ‘trees’ as a pole. This giant hat stand is also used in the finale as a maypole, an oddly traditional set piece for such an unconventional production, but something that is undeniably pretty to watch.
This production takes the blurring of the gender divide already inherent in Shakespeare’s work – with a boy actor playing a woman pretending to be a boy – and runs with it, proving that although society can get fixated on gender and outward appearance, it is the spirit within each of us that inspires and experiences love.