I’m as pessimistic about humanity as the next person, but we’ve clearly made some headway as a species when a 400-year-old Shakespeare play is refashioned to accommodate a star turn from a famous deaf actor.
Josie Rourke’s production of ‘As You Like It’ – the second ever show at horrifyingly named new West End theatre @sohoplace – has not had a radical plot change or whatever to accommodate ‘Strictly’ winner Rose Ayling-Ellis’s endearingly clownish Celia. But she is presumably the reason the entire production is surtitled throughout. It’s a tiny bit distracting – I had a tendency to read along, and notice when an actor fluffed a word – but it integrates her signing seamlessly, is presumably helpful to Shakespeare novices generally, and Rourke gets a few fun jokes out of it (a herd of sheep is entirely generated by captions, amusingly).
Former Donmar and Bush boss Rourke has always been a versatile director, but with a series of fairly distinct modes within that, and this is basically her full-on populism setting. Although Ayling-Ellis is an experienced stage actor, the fact is she’s now extremely famous for a teatime dancing show: it requires a certain chutzpah to cast a ‘Strictly’ winner in a supporting role in a Shakespeare play – you pretty much need to go big or go home. The young actors really goes for it physically: her Celia is clownish, larger than life and thoroughly charming, bouncing through the play’s woodland setting like it’s all a jolly big amusing game.
Which is kind of is. Rourke’s production seems less concerned with the more serious, court intrigue-heavy opening sections, but comes to life when its various characters have all run off to the Forest of Arden. Forming a classic O shape, the in-the-round @sohoplace lends itself to Shakespearean performance, but not the sort of lavish sets and production values you’d typically expect from West End Shakespeare. But Rourke and creative team have got around this brilliantly. Piano player Michael Bruce sits smack bang in the middle of the performance space throughout, powering his own genuinely lovely arrangements of the play’s songs. And the signature of Robert Jones’s design is the drifts of leaves and snow that fall from the ceiling, less splashy special effects, more graceful, mediative tableaux, and startlingly beautiful.
This is certainly the most palpable Arden I can remember seeing in a production of ‘As You Like It’, and the first where I could really understand why the play’s various misfit characters had gone so nuts for the woodland setting.
This strong sense of place gives it a feeling of coherence that helps combat the nagging feeling that maybe Rourke’s production boils down to a series of turns. Ayling-Ellis’s Celia, Alfred Enoch’s distracted nerd Orlando, Leah Harvey’s chipper urchin Rosalind and big-ish name US actor Martha Plimpton’s uncomfortably over-emotional Jacques are all good fun, but feel like they’re virtually in different plays. There’s a compelling visual aesthetic, but I’m not sure Rourke nails a unified sense of who these people are and what is actually driving them. They don’t really rub up against each other romantically with any great conviction. Their world feels palpable but never quite believable
That said, ‘As You Like It’ is a pretty weird play, like if an episode of ‘The West Wing’ was followed up by 90 minutes of the main characters frolicking randomly, in a forest, while cross-dressing. Rourke’s production sacrifices a certain amount of clarity for in-the-moment entertainment. But I think that’s forgivable, especially when it looks and sounds as good as this.