sun 21/07/2024

As You Like It, @sohoplace review - music-filled, warm-hearted celebration | reviews, news & interviews

As You Like It, @sohoplace review - music-filled, warm-hearted celebration

As You Like It, @sohoplace review - music-filled, warm-hearted celebration

The first home-grown offering at this impressive new space is a playful paean to theatre

Leah Harvey as Rosalind and Rose Ayling-Ellis as Celia speaking in BSLManuel Harlan

The scene is set onstage in the first minutes. And it remains a stage throughout this harmonious production. The action takes place in a severe court and a more liberal forest, but really the setting is always a place of imagination, a theatre. Jaques' most anthologised speech, "All the world's a stage ... " is its keynote: all the actors are players, in both senses of the word.

Before a line is spoken, pianist (and composer) Michael Bruce takes his place at a piano which becomes a grassy hillock on which actors jump or rest and a hiding place as well as a source of music to fit the mood of the moment, often signalled by one of the characters. The first words are sung: Martha Plimpton (familiar from The Goonies, The Good Wife and Sweat), who will go on to play a female Jaques, sings "Blow, blow, thou winter wind..." reprised in its usual place in Act II, sung by the courtier Amiens. As You Like It has often been characterised as the nearest Shakespeare came to writing a musical and Josie Rourke's production takes it several steps into that territory. Sometimes lines usually spoken are sung; often there is surprising, melodious part-singing.

Alfred Enoch as Orlando in As You Like It"Blow, blow" begins a beautiful, familiar ditty, but its refrain has an edge of scepticism: "Hey-ho, sing hey-ho, unto the green holly./ Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly." This is a joyous play with fewer dark notes than Twelfth Night, but even this hint of human frailty is not given much space here. Jaques is more charming than melancholy; Phoebe, cruelly dismissed by Rosalind (in the character of Ganymede, the object of Phoebe's misdirected affection) seems instantly happy to accept her loyal swain, Silvius. She is even spared Rosalind's barbed put-down: instead of saying "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets", Rosalind (a lively, quick, mercurial Leah Harvey) includes herself – and perhaps all women – by changing "you" to "we". Audrey (Gabriella Leon), the country girl pursued – and ultimately, against the odds, married by sophisticated, manipulative jester Touchstone – is jolly and trusting but not "foul". Even Charles the wrestler suffers no more than minor humiliation at the hands of slender Orlando, played with eager openness and enthusiasm by Alfred Enoch (pictured right, © Johan Persson).

The big news story of this production has been Rose Ayling-Ellis as a hearing impaired Celia, signing almost all her lines. It isn't the first time for this kind of casting – Nadia Nadarajah played Celia in this way at the Globe in 2018 – but Ayling-Ellis certainly enjoys every second here and her pleasure is infectious. Well-known from EastEnders and, more importantly, as the winner of Strictly Come Dancing, when her silent routine with Giovanni Pernice was voted the television moment of last year, Ayling-Ellis is a wonderfully exuberant Celia. Expressive, funny and passionate, she is exactly in tune with the mood of the production. All the lines, not only Celia's, are projected above the audience so that BSL can be followed by non-speakers, and the hard-of-hearing are included throughout.

Tom Mison as Touchstone with Michael Bruce in As You Like ItAs You Like It revels even more than Shakespeare's other comedies in gender fluidity. There have been two famous all-male productions in modern times, in 1967 at the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl's in 1991, with Adrian Lester as Rosalind. At the Globe in 2018 there was even a complete about-turn, with Rosalind played by Jack Laskey and Orlando by a diminutive Bettrys Jones. Shakespeare, of course, wrote for a boy to play a girl pretending to be a boy, tellingly given the homoerotic pseudonym of Ganymede – a knowing joke shared by the first audiences. This production begins in a formal court where everyone wears black Elizabethan-style dress; in the forest this is replaced with more casual clothing of a non-specific period, where a man might be played by a woman, where gender seems not so much fluid as immaterial. 

In modern productions Orlando usually proves he is worthy of the clever, witty, intelligent Rosalind by seeing through her "disguise" before the final revelations. It's lightly suggested here. Orlando's brother, Oliver, changed by his experience of the forest from vicious bully to loving sibling, seems to know by the time he meets "Ganymede" who she really is. Orlando has apparently told him his story earlier while saving him from attack by a lion. This is indeed a place where anything can happen, but most things are satisfactorily resolved, and that sense of fairy tale is enthusiastically embraced.

The text is trimmed in the two hours 40 minutes running time. The business of Orlando's poems being pinned on trees is shortened and there is no Hymen to oversee the weddings or joke vicar, Oliver Mar-text, to marry Audrey to the conniving Touchstone. The jester is played by Tom Mison (pictured left, with Michael Bruce © Manuel Harlan), who manages to make his rhetorical speech about lying funny and accessible in the spirit of Shakespeare's clown. He even once involves two people in the front row. But the audience as a whole, seated on all four sides of the acting area, feels included in the action: we, rather than foresters, are jokingly referred to by Jaques as the fools called into a ring by "Ducdame".

Respect to Michael Bruce, on stage throughout, responding to the action as necessary, keeping the mood and pace on point in Robert Jones' set, full of fluttering autumn leaves.

Outside, the cold bites. Inside @sohoplace, there is warmth and laughter.


Rose Ayling-Ellis enjoys every second and her pleasure is infectious


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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