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6 December 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:51pm

The night that changed my life: Josie Rourke on an all-male As You Like It in Manchester

Watching Adrian Lester on stage, I realised that there was such a thing as transcendent performance.

By Josie Rourke

I grew up in Salford, next to Manchester. There was great theatre in Manchester in the 1990s: the Royal Exchange. It was like the Contact but, for an ardent geek like me, you’d have worked your way through that by the top of the month.

Although I saw everything that was on, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could find a career in theatre. I think that’s because, even as a teenager, I had enough self-knowledge to get how teeth-ringingly awful my acting was. All I could really perceive as a job was on the stage.

It was 1995. The Dancehouse in Manchester had some touring plays and I spotted that a production of As You Like It was playing there for a week. I dragged myself “up town” as Salfordians refer to Manchester. I went on my own. I nearly didn’t go, I’d just broken up with my boyfriend, and my instinct was to stay at home and listen to my Stone Roses CD on a loop.

What I saw, that night in Manchester, was Declan Donnellan’s miraculous, all-male Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, with Adrian Lester glowing as Rosalind at its core. It was, in production and performance, that thing that all great stage work strives to be – both infinitely complex and utterly direct. I don’t think I have ever heard so clearly expressed the bitter-sweet contradictions of love. It was breathlessly funny, and so, so dangerous.

I realised that night that there was such a thing as transcendent performance. I also clocked on to the notion that there was such a thing as a director. Not just through the choice of an all-male ensemble but also in how it had clearly taken a style and a way of working to take something that had been written 400 years ago and create a revelatory night. My revelation went beyond that performance. I realised that the job of a director existed, and that what it could do was to help create performances like Adrian’s.

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I found my career that night. It has taken me over 20 years to get to work with Adrian Lester but I’ve just managed it. And I did tell him. But not until we had wrapped the film.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special