Transport Theatre’s As You Like It opens in a squat in Calais as a migrant reads the play to try to teach himself English. Then the play takes over. It’s a framing device drawn almost directly from director Doug Rintoul’s research – the stories he heard and people he met in the ‘No Borders’ migrant camp in Calais. At any one time, he tells me, the camp contains “between 200 and 1,500 migrants living in makeshift jungles”. This is where he heard the true story of a migrant who was learning English by reading Shakespeare, and he lived in the location that has inspired his contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic.
This Calais setting and its accompanying narratives of immigration and exile make this production far from the usual pastoral romp in the forest. Rintoul describes it as darker, more urgent, political – “it’s more a meditation on when we strip everything away – the state, the country, family – what we’re left with, and what we desire, which is food, community, love and human contact.” The first half of the play is “terrifying, a dictatorship under Duke Frederick”, but the second seems to speak for Rintoul’s philosophy of theatre. Deep in the inhospitable forest that mirrors the Calais jungle, here “everyone’s looking for human interaction to know that they still exist.”
When I ask him why he makes theatre, Rintoul pauses for the longest amount of time in the entire interview. It’s as if there are too many answers. “We always need to come into a place and to hear stories. It’s a fundamental part of being a human. There’s an inherent need to sit and hear about other people’s lives, whether they chime with our own experience, or whether they illuminate the experience of those around us.”
More personally, as a gay teenager growing up on a council estate in Essex, theatre exposed him “to narratives of otherness” for the first time, and “made me feel more comfortable about who I was. It had a huge effect on me personally, and I suppose what I do in my own work is that I endeavour to facilitate that in other audience members, even if it’s in a tiny way.”
He sees theatre as a medium of the imagination – and that the collective imagination of the audience and actors create a unique site for empathy. Put simply, theatre is where you can make people care. This is why he asks budding theatre directors “to really ask yourself the question – how do I want my audience to be different once they’ve left the theatre?”
His company, Transport Theatre, is driven by this question. Prior to As You Like It, its work includes Elegy and Invisible, both about migration. Transport’s remit is to ask big questions, to celebrate diversity and to make the stage reflect the society we live in – one that’s diverse and multinational. His voice bubbles over with enthusiasm when he talks about a conversation he had with his 11-year-old niece about the make-up of her class. “There’s something extraordinary about that generation in that they’re very open to different nationalities because they experience them on a daily basis. They have a Polish friend who’s struggling with English, or a Syrian refugee… I’m very excited about how that generation is going to change our attitudes to the rest of the world. They accept a diverse society as a given, rather than something that’s destroying the fabric of our nation.”
Transport’s As You Like It comes as an intervention in the immigration debate, at a time when it is the subject of more and more political anger and scapegoating, as politicians, the media and individuals look for people to blame for Britain’s economic difficulties. Current discussions lack an appreciation of the lives of migrants, Rintoul argues. “If someone leaves their homeland and spends six months travelling across the globe in the most difficult circumstances known to man, there are very good reasons. You don’t choose to leave your homeland, your family, everything that defines you as a human being without very good cause. I think we don’t fully take that on board.”
It’s not a complete remedy, but one thing Transport’s work tries to do is “to make sure we meet these people properly. Theatre is a fantastic medium of storytelling that transports us emotionally and geographically. Really fully entering into another human being’s life, in all of its complexity, that’s what excites me.”
Rintoul sees As You Like It as a near-perfect fit for these subjects. If anything, he argues it brings it closer to how it would have been experienced – to an Elizabethan audience “exile was a real and tangible thing. It was very possible. So in many ways we’re only brining the reality of exile back to the foreground.” In the rehearsal room, it’s also informed by the personal experiences of the multinational cast – one of whom has had to spend time in a detention centre in Spain.
There’s a certain glee Rintoul takes in presenting “a narrative an audience might not come across or want to be exposed to”. Ultimately, it seems as if he sees theatre as a crucible for change – whether personal or political, whether through showing you lives you’ve never seen, or revealing that you’re not alone. The theatre he makes reflects this and, to my mind, it’s an ambition to be applauded.
As You Like It is touring until 22 November. For more information visit Transport’s website.