“Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda”
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Those immortal words the Bard penned in his rustic comedy, As You Like It, seem as true as ever in this recent musical adaptation of the play which makes its European debut. Produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in partnership with the National Theatre’s Public Acts, a national initiative to make inclusive, community theatre, it brings a one hundred-strong cast from all walks of life together to create this vibrant version which is unlike any other production of As You Like It you will have seen.
In a condensed telling of Shakespeare’s tale we find Duke Senior (Rohan Reckord) has been banished from the court by his brother Duke Frederick (Curtis Young), finding solace and a new home within the Forest of Arden, where many of his supporters begin to converge and take commune. In paranoid rage, Duke Frederick lashes out at anyone that threatens his authority, including his niece, Rosalind (Ebony Jonelle), who is exiled. Taking on a male disguise, she similarly flees to the Forest of Arden bringing in tow her cousin Celia (Marjorie Agwang), and the trusty clown Touchstone (Vedi Roy). However, before her banishment, Rosalind falls head over heels in love with Orlando (Linford Johnson) whom she must conceal her true emotions from when their paths cross again in the forest.
The original songs that interject this adaptation, help to flesh the characters out further, giving their actions and motives more depth. Composed by American Shaina Taub, she is certainly a name to listen out for in the future. Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and help to give a nearly 400-year old story a current relevance.
This may be a community project, but by and large the main characters are played by trained actors. Stand outs include the incredibly watchable Ebony Jonelle who offers a vivacious Rosalind, whilst Vedi Roy as Touchstone delivers the sassiest clown in town. Rohan Reckord has such a smooth voice it will undoubtedly give you goosebumps when he sings.
Nevertheless, it is the amalgamation between the trained actor and the ‘average Joe’ that really is something special, proving that a passion for theatre is what truly wins out and that anybody has a right and the capability to perform on stage. During the colossal group scenes, it is nigh impossible to not feel moved seeing a broad range of people of all ages, abilities, cultures, and backgrounds coming together. The sheer joy that beams from the stage is infectious. The carnival-like atmosphere and colourful costumes (Hayley Grindle and Daisy Blower) make it a party you never want to leave.
“some moments are hypnotically step-perfect but others feel confused”
Let’s be real: contemporary dance can be hard. Appreciation of it can rely on interpreting unspoken languages that baffle the uninitiated; those in the know can decode it, but for the rest of us it can feel terribly othering, as though on the outside of a cryptic in-joke.
I’d love to say that this piece by emerging contemporary dance superstars bucks this trend. And there are moments of comfort and sweetness; lights soften, a dog potters into the space and greets the audience. Costumes (Curtis Oland with masks by Damselfrau) are impactful, invoking gender-bending jesters. But for much of the night, this is contemporary dance at its most alienating.
The concepts are beguiling, although the artspeak in the programme does nothing to draw us in (e.g. curator Stefan Jovanović states ‘…current research looks at the translation of systemic family constellations and somatic experiencing into dance and architecture’). Part masque, part artwork, part ritual and part village fête (we’re encouraged to attend the ‘Fool’s Market’ (set design Jack Hardy) during the interval to peruse artisanal pieces used in the performance), we’re told that ‘we’re living in a time of need of new rituals for coming together, to affect (sic?) change, to heal’ and ‘it is about sacred spaces and sacred times, the rekindling of community’. Hard to argue with that. But given its lofty intentions, I wonder who this performance is for. Perhaps many members of the very white, often more mature audience are experienced enough consumers of dance to take the more challenging set pieces in their stride (two dancers roaming the stage barking like dogs for minutes on end, anyone?), but for those less immersed these scenes can feel impossibly long and downright baffling.
This is a shame, as there are powerful moments and no shortage of impressive physicality on display. It’s hard not to feel as though the night revolves around Pau Aran Gimeno, whose movement is easily the most entrancing and whose narratives are some of the more accessible. A scene of shamanic ritual, set to a pulsing drumbeat (composer Domenico Angarano), is one of the most compelling, and the swirling metal orb suspended over the stage (created by one of the craftspeople on display) is an effective staging moment. Dancers writhe around more metal structures throughout, and these too promise mesmeric flashes – until occasionally a performer thunks awkwardly against one and the spell is broken. This reflects another issue with the night; some moments are hypnotically step-perfect but others feel confused.
There are also interactions with audience members: more awkwardness. Many of these offer up moments of tenderness; to its credit, this is not a production intended to embarrass its attendees. But the informality of these interactions is also distracting; one game volunteer squeaked ‘what am I supposed to DO??!’ as she teetered on a metal wheel. Indeed.
Dance – nay, any piece of art – doesn’t need to be literal, of course it doesn’t, and in a piece dedicated to carving out ‘a space that is both familiar and strange’ it’s right and to be expected that discomfiture will feature. It just feels as though Constellations, with its promise of humour and warmth, takes fragmentation just a step too far.