How do you like it? Gender and politics in Shakespeare at the New Theatre Royal

As You Like It, with Jessica Hayles centre. Picture by Keith Pattison
As You Like It, with Jessica Hayles centre. Picture by Keith Pattison
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Taking on the biggest female role in all of Shakespeare’s works could be daunting.

But actress Jessica Hayles has been relishing the chance to tackle Rosalind in As You Like It.

‘Yes, it’s the biggest female role in Shakespeare,’ she tells The Guide, ‘it’s Hamlet for men, and Rosalind for women when it comes to who has the most lines in any of his plays, and she carries the story as well.’

One of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, with the most witty and wise-cracking heroine of them all, is transformed in a bold new production by Kate Saxon from the award-winning Shared Experience company.

Set in the modern world of alternative facts and fiercely jealous leaders, the young Rosalind and her friend Celia find themselves pawns in a power struggle.

Together they decide to flee the city and its politics for the forest where they discover a countryside wonderland of peace and harmony. Disguised as a boy, Rosalind meets Orlando and, amidst the intoxicating atmosphere of the forest, counsels him in the art of love.

It’s definitely a world that people will recognise, but it is slightly surreal

Jessica Hayles

‘It is set in 2017. The beginning of the show has got quite a political setting – which we chose to add, and a lot to do with different political parties. It’s usually to do with two dukes and then one of them gets banished at the start of the play.

‘It’s not quite in our world, and then once we go into the Forest of Arden, then we kind of go into an abstract, whacky, freeing world as well. ‘It’s definitely a world that people will recognise, but it is slightly surreal.

‘You mainly follow Rosalind’s journey, but as in all Shakespeare there’s lots of subplots and brilliant characters that pop up.’

What has it been like playing a woman impersonating a male?

‘Do you know what? It’s absolutely wonderful. I love it, as soon as I read the play – I had seen it before – but reading it again and thinking about Rosalind, that was the bit I was most excited about.

‘I started playing Ganymede – that’s the male character – as a kind of woman, then I played it really masculine, and tried to hide the femininity, but obviously I do look quite feminine.

‘It’s a lot about confidence and what she allows herself to say as a man, which she wouldn’t normally be able to say in the political setting because she was female and kind of ruled over by men. So it’s actually been having the stance and the confidence and bravery for women to say whatever they want – which women should be able to do to do anyway.’

‘The peak of the play for Rosalind is when she’s absolutely fallen in love with Orlando and is absolutely Ganymede, and she’s not even thinking about being a boy any more – she is a boy, those scenes are my most fun.

Working with Shared Experience, the company putting on the production, has also been a long-held ambition for Jessica.

‘This is my first time working with them, but I’ve known about them for a few years and I’ve wanted to work with them since I was in drama school. When I was first introduced to them I thought they were so bold and vibrant and visual and visceral. They were on my list of people to work with.

‘When I was auditioning with Kate Saxon, the director, I just felt absolutely comfortable. It only takes about 10 minutes to think: “I want to work on this production and I want to work with you”, and I felt that with Kate straight away.’


New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth

November 24-25