'As You Like It' – this ravishing, musical Shakespeare production is full of verdant delights
Has there ever been a more tempting time to run away to the Forest of Arden? Particularly when it’s an As You Like It as utterly beguiling as Josie Rourke’s, the first production made specially for bijou new London theatre @sohoplace, with its gorgeous musical setting of Shakespeare’s songs – played live on a baby grand piano by composer Michael Bruce – its mix of elaborate period costumes and enviable knitwear, and leaves falling like chic confetti from a ceiling where tree branches are nestled within a picture frame.
Played in the round, this is also enjoyably fleet, funny and intimate Shakespeare, albeit not always delivered in the same register by its company. One of the most striking interventions is the casting of Deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis (aka the triumphant winner of the 2021 series of Strictly Come Dancing), who makes a captivating West End debut as Celia.
The all-important bond between her and cousin Rosalind is immediately established by them signing to one another (the production uses a mix of BSL and a more dramatic form called visual vernacular; there are also screens with surtitles throughout) – whereas Celia’s father, Duke Frederick, refuses to sign, forcing Celia to speak when she cries out in defence of Rosalind after the duke exiles her.
It also adds a fascinating layer to this comedy that so often features people talking at cross-purposes, or one person having more information than another – as when Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) suggests Orlando try wooing her in pretence, while Celia watches on with alarm, frustration and finally resignation. Notably, Rosalind sometimes stops signing, cutting Celia out of the conversation altogether.
The signing amps up the comedy (I particularly liked Ayling-Ellis’s full-bodied physical transformation into “monster”), and, together with Bruce’s music, there are times when it feels almost like a silent movie. Celia and Oliver’s brief courtship is particularly charming: Ayling-Ellis flips her hair invitingly, while Oliver (a dapper Ben Wiggins) immediately attempts some halting sign language so as to connect with her.
However, it shifts the play’s focus. In the early scenes, Celia is more engaging than Rosalind, and although Leah Harvey becomes a vivid presence later on when acting as the brash youth Ganymede, that central romance gets slightly lost in the mix. Likewise, an excellent Alfred Enoch brings intensity to the wronged Orlando, and plenty of unexpected comic beats (his deliberately terrible singing of his woeful poetry is a highlight), but I lost the sense of burning passion. There’s more loud declaiming of love than demonstrating it – a tactic at odds with the marvellously compact venue.
But then this particular Forest of Arden feels more alive to the possibilities of individual transformation and exploration: that’s the sweet spot of Rourke’s production, and it connects well to a modern understanding of fluid identity (along with the inclusive casting). As we move locations, Tom Edden shapeshifts in plain sight from one duke to the other, shedding Frederick’s ponytail and vindictive anger, and adopting the pastoral zen of Duke Senior. Particularly wonderful is June Watson, who collapses as the loyal but exhausted Adam, and is reborn as the implacable shepherd Corin.
It’s a shame there isn’t more of Watson, but of course this peculiar play keeps crowding out its existing characters by adding new ones, like the warring Phoebe and Silvius (Mary Malone and Nathan Queeley-Davies are a strong double act). Perhaps that’s why the observing philosophers come out of it best. American actress Martha Plimpton is a terrific Jacques, powerfully demonstrating the restless discontent of a roving mind and the gathering weight of human experience. “All the world’s a stage” surfaces naturally from her ongoing exploration, and its ending poignantly intersects with the venerable Adam’s struggles.
Excellent, too, is Tom Mison as quick-witted fool Touchstone, who finds himself wildly out of his element in this new rural realm and attempts to conquer it – though with just enough wry self-awareness to understand the absurdity of the task (see: conducting an animal orchestra). His lustful union with Gabriella Leon’s frankly carnal Audrey is another comic delight.
Plenty to enjoy here, then. But it doesn’t entirely cohere as a whole. Lovely as the music is (and beautifully sung, especially by Allie Daniel) at times the action competes with it: the piano sets the rhythm rather than the verse. Together with Robert Jones’s almost distractingly ravishing design (we’re dangerously close to the setting of a Vogue fashion shoot), it gives us too many surface pleasures, keeping the deeper and darker emotions at bay.
But if you’re seeking an Arden of verdant delights for your festive outing, accessibly performed by a charismatic company, you’ll certainly find it here. And I can’t wait to return to this inviting and hugely promising new venue for more shows. Per Celia: I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.
As You Like It is at Soho Place through 28 January. Book As You Like It tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: Rose Ayling-Ellis and Leah Harvey in As You Like It (Photo by Johan Persson)
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