As You Like It Full of Joy
“O, how full of briars is this working-day world! “
This most English of all of Shakespeare’s comedies gets a fresh look in Nica Burns’s newest and most beautiful West End theatre, @sohoplace. Most of the play is set in the Forest of Arden, close to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford upon Avon, but As You Like It’s themes of deposition, disguise and redemption are common to other of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s source was Thomas Lodge’s 1590 Rosalynde based on a medieval poem The Tale of Gamelyn, about three brothers, the youngest of whom was forced into exile by the eldest.
There are two sets of brothers in As You Like It. In the court, Duke Frederick has deposed his elder brother Duke Senior (both dukes played by Tom Edden but unwigged and uncloaked as the usurped) and Duke Senior is living, with his banished courtiers, as an outlaw in the Forest of Arden. Senior’s daughter, Rosalynde (Leah Harvey) has been allowed to stay at court at the start of the play with her cousin Celia (Rose Ayling-Ellis) the usurper’s daughter. Oliver (Ben Wiggins) the elder brother of Orlando (Alfred Enoch) has cast out his younger brother Orlando.
Our first glimpse of the court sees Martha Plimpton as Madame Jaques, one of Duke Senior’s courtiers in courtly dress leaving and singing “Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind” the song about ingratitude. The composer Michael Bruce is onstage at a baby grand piano which will become a grassy bank in the Forest of Arden. Orlando will wrestle Charles (Dickon Gough) in a contest. Duke Frederick changes his mind and banishes Rosalind but his own daughter Celia decides to go with her, Rosalind is disguised as a boy Ganymede and Celia as a peasant girl Aliena.
Celia who is played by the charming, deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis speaks her speech using British Sign Language and each side of sohoplace’s square auditorium will see the text displayed above throughout the play. This sign language interpretation has a physical choreographed beauty of its own and has the added bonus of making us aware of the words using another sensory organ besides our ears. Rose Ayling-Ellis was the Strictly Come Dancing winner in 2021. Full marks to Josie Rourke for this casting and to Nica Burns for inclusivity in her new theatre.
I have long felt it was a harsh future for Celia to marry Orlando’s brother Oliver, but here the latter’s villainy is reduced and his remorse far stronger so we can forgive him. The adaptation is by director Josie Rourke. The “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” from Rosalind to Phoebe (Mary Malone) is changed to less barbed “We are not for all markets!” This is a very strong musical production in using all the songs in As You Like It and the piano onstage. Amiens (Allie Daniel) sings “Come Hither” brilliantly.
Robert Jones’s stage is dominated above by a large picture frame, the full area of the stage and filled with branches of the woodland trees. The autumnal design has the stage carpetted with fallen leaves and Jaques with pretty twigs in her hair. This contrasts with the black and white formal court attire which changes to homespun knitwear as forest clothing.
I shall always remember an As You Like It, earlier this century when every tree onstage and those in the Auditorium were adorned with Post It notes of Orlando’s poetry for Rosalind. Here the poems are read by an actor and projected above the stage.
The “Seven Ages of Man” speech is as near perfect as I have ever seen in the hands of Martha Plimpton as Jaques with her mixture of wisdom and melancholy and here given the prominence it merits. Jaques looks towards the aged Adam (June Watson) as her description ages.
I have never loved the rural comedy in As You Like It instead preferring to concentrate on the warmth of this play and its endearing characters which Josie Rourke has magically created here.
As You Like It
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Josie Rourke
Director: Josie Rourke
Designer: Robert Jones
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Composer/Pianist: Michael Bruce
Co-costume Designer: Poppy Hall
Musical Director: Dan Jackson
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with an interval
Booking to 28th January 2023
4 Soho Place
London W1D 3BG
Tube: Tottenham Court Road
Telephone: 020 384 09611
Access: 0330 3335962
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
@sohoplace on 14th December 2022