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June 23, 2005

Failing to deal with the play's sexual ambiguities: As You Like It at Wyndham's Theatre

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's As You Like It
directed by David Lan
Wyndham's Theatre, London
21st June - 17th September 2005

David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - finds that the production of As You Like It at the Wyndham's Theatre is good fun "if you like musicals, and you like Shakespeare in modern dress, and (this is the hard part) you are old enough to remember Round the Horne but never realised that Julian and Sandy are gay". The production - argues Prof. Wootton - simply fails to deal adequately with the sexual ambiguities of As You Like It.

This production takes Shakespeare's play and sets it in France in the 1940s and presents it as a musical. If you don't like Shakespeare in modern dress, or don't like musicals, it is not for you. It wasn't for Alison. On the other hand the comic parts (Sean Hughes as Touchstone, Reece Shearsmith as Jacques) were rather good and will surely get better – I saw it on the night before the critics' night, so it was still a bit raw. Moreover the unpleasantness of the world of the court was very well presented. The wrestling match was fantastic. And the sets, which rely on backprojected photographs of forests, were excellent. The audience, which must have contained a good few friends and relations, was immensely enthusiastic.

I enjoyed myself, but I do think the director, David Lan, has quite simply failed to come to grips with the play. Orlando and Rosalind (forgive me for reminding you) fall in love, and then separately fall on hard times. They meet again in the forest of Arden, where Rosalind is dressing as a boy and calling herself Ganymede. (S)he persuades Orlando to pretend she is Rosalind, and pretend to woo her. The result is a series of very complex scenes.

On Shakespeare's stage Rosalind would have been played by a boy crossdressing as a young woman, and then presenting himself as a woman crossdressing as a man. Romantic scenes on his stage always involved the dangerous frisson that they involved a man making love to a boy, and of course critics of the theatre complained that it encouraged sodomy.

Given the constraints of the Elizabethan stage, it is frankly puzzling that Shakespeare insisted on writing plays with female leads – if he had stuck to histories and tragedies, and of course stayed clear of Cleopatra, he could easily have kept his boy actors in the sorts of parts which strained neither credulity nor propriety. Instead he wrote play after play that requires virtuoso crossdressing. Of course a crossdressed female lead was less difficult for a boy actor than staying in character throughout (as Kate has to do, for example, in The Taming of the Shrew). But that gain came at a very high price, for it of necessity reminded the audience (who must have been very busy trying to forget this basic fact) that all the women were boys. But just as Shakespeare constantly reminded his audience that they were watching a performance (the "All the world's a stage" speech is in this play), so too he enjoyed reminding them that he was constrained to represent femininity in the most ambiguous of terms.

On a modern stage, where Rosalind is normally portrayed by a female actor, the complexity is different. Rosalind's part is relatively easy: she must look as if she could pass as male; she must let her love for Orlando show through, and convey how painful it is for her not to be able to express it directly, but to be reduced to pretending to pretend. Here Helen McCrory plays Rosalind and makes good use of her vocal range, though truth to tell there is not very much that is mannish about her. Surely one has to feel that Rosalind fulfils part of herself in becoming male? It needs to be apparent, after all, that Rosalind is made to play a man in a way that her friend Celia is not.

Orlando's part is much harder. He must court the male Rosalind, and something serious and dangerous must creep into his pretend wooing. He must begin to find this boy (for there is no sign that he ever seriously suspects he is a girl) enormously attractive. The danger will only pass in the last scene, when it turns out he is a girl after all. Here Dominic West plays Orlando, and he simply isn't up to the task. He courts the male Rosalind as if he was courting for real, not in pretence. At the same time he shows no indication that he is in danger of being seduced into sodomy. In fact he comes perilously close to behaving as if Rosland isn't in disguise at all. He conveys little inner conflict or tension. It's rather as if he found himself courting Rosalind's sister – not an ideal situation, but hardly surprising that he should find her incredibly attractive. No actor should have been prepared to settle for this, and no director should have let him get away with it.

A much better example of how subtly these complexities can be negotiated is provided by Denise Gough who plays Phoebe. Silvius is in love with Phoebe, who spurns him, but falls for male Rosalind, partly because (s)he spurns Phoebe in her turn. Gough plays Phoebe as if her sexuality is entirely undetermined. A clumsy tomboy in a pretty dress, it is not at all clear whether she falls for the masculine or the feminine aspects of male Rosalind. And Ben Turner as Silvius brings out rather well how unrequited love unmans a man. These ambiguities are exactly what is needed to make the play work. The fact that this couple can generate them shows that none of the difficulties in the play are insuperable if one is only prepared to keep them in mind.

In a world in which homosexuality is perfectly acceptable, the ambiguities and puzzles of Shakespeare's crossdressing scenes are no longer what they were on the Elizabethan stage, or on the pre-gay liberation stage. Why shouldn't Orlando fall in love with a boy, or Phoebe with a girl? Why shouldn't both Orlando and Phoebe be bisexual? You could take a very strong reading of Shakespeare, based on the Sonnets in particular, and say that this is his view too. But it certainly wouldn't have been his audience's view.

A different tack has been taken by modern critics (Tom Laqueur, Stephen Greenblatt) who have argued that Elizabethans saw little difference between boys and women. Of course they recognized there was an anatomical difference, but since they thought that men and women were fundamentally anatomically identical (yes – that is what they thought), they didn't think this difference very significant. The medical vocabulary for the sexual organs of men and women, after all, was exactly the same: the ovaries were called testicles, the vagina (not a classical Latin but a modern word) was simply an inverted penis. According to Galen, women, just like men, produced semen. Where we think of men and women in terms of biological differences – hormones and chromosomes, eggs and sperm – they thought in terms of continuities. We have differences of kind, they had differences of degree. Consequently it was relatively easy for the Elizabethans to imagine and portray a boy passing as a woman and a man falling in love with a boy.

One can also stress how frequently female as male crossdressing actually took place: there is a nice statistic somewhere of the number of women caught passing as men in the Dutch army. The average, if memory serves, was about one a year.

To present As You Like it on the modern stage you really have to decide how you are going to handle the sex and gender issues. You can have a man playing Rosalind, and thus try to recapture Shakespeare's world. You can have Rosalind played by a woman, yet have her convince Orlando she is a boy, and then seduce him. Either way some uncertainty about what it is to be male and what it is to be female, and some ambiguity about the heterosexuality of the lead characters has to be produced. I suppose you could have Orlando talk past the male Rosalind and address only his imaginary love, as if the real Rosalind was suddenly invisible, though I feel this would somehow sidestep what is supposed to happen, which is Orlando falling, against his will, for a boy.

This production, for all its energy and enthusiasm, simply fails to think its way through these problems. It belongs to a lost world, in which crossdressing was staged as if everything was perfectly straightforward and entirely innocent because lesbianism and homosexuality were simply unimaginable. This is neither Shakespeare's world, nor ours. It actually wasn't a real world at all, but a let's pretend world. What's the point of reinhabiting it? In short, you should go and see this production if you like musicals, and you like Shakespeare in modern dress, and (this is the hard part) you are old enough to remember Round the Horne but never realised that Julian and Sandy are gay. If you meet these three criteria you'll have an absolutely wonderful time!

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.


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What does the Professor mean by "a world in which homosexuality is perfectly acceptable"? Too many people seem to me to want a world in which homosexuality is actively promoted, in order that young people whose sexuality has not yet crystallized may be recruited into a polysexual playground free-for-all.

I don't say the old days were better. Then the alpha male chimpanzees such as President Clinton ruled the roost. But Darwin would be turning in his grave to see how the abandonment of "male and female created he them" is turning society towards the pygmy chimpanzees. To quote Joan Roughgarden writing in the 'New Scientist', “Same sex sexuality in female bonobos is another social inclusionary trait. I conjecture that females who do not participate regularly in mutual face to face genital rubbing do not form the bonds needed to participate in the groups that control access to food, or enjoy the protection necessary to raise young successfully.” Is this the face of tomorrow's girl gangs?

Apologies to any Special Creationist friends, but they do need to see that God has given us these primates as a mirror to our own animal nature.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 24, 2005 08:43 AM
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An excellent review - thanks for elucidating the issues so well. If only the newspapers could have as erudite reviewers as Prof. Wootton.

But I have to add to the last commentator - what a lot of nonsense. Recruiting people into lifestyles - what are you on about.

Posted by: Sam at June 27, 2005 01:24 PM
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