(Heads up – this is going to be more of the commenting and reflecting kind of post, one based on memory and feeling rather than trying to intellectualize everything.)
This January, I travelled to London for the first time. I spent a good three weeks there and when I wasn’t taking my class on portraiture (aptly called “Idea of the Portrait”), I made sure to catch as many theater shows as possible. All hail student discounts and London’s efforts to make theater affordable and accessible.
The one show that I went to see twice was “As You Like It“, which showed at the National Theatre (NT). It was the first time in thirty years for the NT that this Shakespearean play was going to be enacted. And for me, it was the first time I had ever been to the NT. A friend had luckily been able to get me and another tickets at the last minute. So fast-forward to another friend and I making a mad bus ride and epically (yes, it was a pretty epic adventure) running in the rain, we finally made it to the NT. Granted, we were a couple of minutes late, but thankfully at the sixth minute into the show the music would change the lights would go off, and kind NT staff would escort us to our seats.
We were in one of the few last rows in the orchestra, and they were probably the best seats in the house. From here, I could soak the whole stage in. My mind tried to make sense of why a Shakespearean play had a Star Trek-meets-The Office-like set on what appears to be disco dance floor. Everyone wore casual attire – Rosalind for instance, wore a simple dress before wearing a hoodie when she disguises herself as a man. Within a minute of sitting down, the stage transformed to occupy a wrestling ring, and a great Mexican wrestler emerged.
Needless to say, I was so engaged in the hilarity of it all.
I had never seen such a contemporary reenactment of a Shakespeare play. But let’s talk about set design specifically.
I remember wondering why the set was so contained and narrow. In the sense that, there was a ceiling above the whole set that made the office-like space seem very narrow. Not too long after I thought this, was I to be amazed as the ceiling started to rise. The desks began to lift off the ground, any plants and computer screens on them falling on the ground – the pots of plants breaking and dirt crumbling to the floor. Before my eyes, what was once an office was transformed into a forest. The space had expanded and the audience was transported to the depths of a dark forest. Here was a forest made not by trees, but by the tables and chairs that hung from the ceiling. And seated on the chairs were people who would make sounds of the wind or the chirping of birds. It was otherworldly, and simply magical.
In hindsight, the entire first act that exist and play well without the office setting and with people typing at computers, printing and passing sheets (I’m sure this is borrowed from another work, though I know not which). The second act though, cannot play without the forest as it almost becomes a character in itself; it is a place of secrets, of rendezvous, of desire, and even danger. The forest transforms at the end into a place of celebration as basically, everybody finds someone to marry. Colorful lights that appear seemingly out of nowhere decorate the forest (this part reminded me of the film ‘Tangled’ to be honest). Coupled with the choreography of the festival dance that follows, it was a perfect way to end the night.
The second time I went to see the show, I was seated in the third row. Here I was able to truly absorb every little detail and begin to understand how the set might have been built. When the stage began to rise, it stopped – technical difficulties. No matter as the show resumed in five minutes and let’s face it – whenever technical difficulties occur, it is just a reminder of the elements of theatre and the fact that we are in a constructed space.
I’m not going to go into analyzing the piece. It’s Shakespeare, and whatever I have to say would already have been said. I could talk about the understudy of Celia who I saw the first night and the ‘real’ Celia who i saw the second time. I could go on about how much I loved the portrayal of Jacques, and how I could not forget the talented singing voice of Amiens. But I do want to say that going to see this show at the NT, especially the first time, and feeling everything I felt after is something I will always treasure. I was in tears when it was time to leave simply because I was happy to be studying theater. I was happy to be in a field of study that is constantly evolving. I was happy to be able to create work and transform a space.
I was happy to have found a place where at least momentarily, magic was real.