Theatre

‘As You Like It’ review – Rose Ayling-Ellis makes delightful debut in lively, lyrical staging

★★★★

Rarely have the songs of Shakespeare become such earworms. Emblazoned on the promotional posters and itching to be played on @sohoplace’s in-the-round set is a wooden piano, candlelit in the court before being decorated with foliage in the forest. It’s perfectly logical to wed As You Like It to a musical score (what with all the frolicking), yet under Josie Rourke’s direction, such a decision is wonderfully fresh and fluid.

Where other Shakespeare stagings have, arguably, breezed through musical numbers in a sing-song fashion, with little attention or care for their impact, here they are integral and with purpose. Music runs through the show, with pianist and composer Michael Bruce regularly called upon to embellish the play’s characters, from punchy chords to inspire confidence, to improvised melodies to soundtrack Orlando’s (Alfred Enoch) pining for Rosalind (Leah Harvey) – and Enoch singing falsetto is a sight to behold.

Amiens’ (Allie Daniel) performance of “Under the Greenwood Tree” becomes a wonderfully rousing and catchy, almost folk rock-like number. There’s no finer display of the unstoppable rhythm of life conveyed in Jacques’ (Martha Plimpton) classic “all the world’s a stage” monologue than in this production, where the transitions of Tom Edden from Duke to Duke and June Watson from Adam to Corin are smooth and seamless, a fall of leaves and snow from above making for the most magical and moving of scenes.

And it is all the more poetic in its use of British Sign Language (BSL) from Deaf actors Rose Ayling-Ellis (of Strictly and EastEnders fame) and Gabriella Leon (Casualty). Ayling-Ellis signs almost completely in BSL as Celia, and such a visual language allows for much cheekiness on her part, with expressive and vivid signs – though such is the requirement of BSL – mocking individuals of her choosing.

It’s delightful viewing, though one feels the subtle messaging on Deaf issues could have been more overt. There’s something interesting in Celia having to speak to her vengeful father rather than signing (a forced oralism, perhaps), and moments where Celia is spoken for, not to by other characters such as Rosalind (an all too common occurrence for Deaf people), but of all the scenes in this production, these two are lost in its fleeting nature, left more of an Easter egg of sorts to fellow Deafies in the audience. Her relationship to Rosalind, however, is charming and giddy, the latter calling the former her “Coz” and occasionally rolling around on the floor together. The fumbling isn’t just reserved for the wrestlers.

It must also be noted that the decision to have all shows captioned via four caption units around the auditorium is an excellent one. They’re creative in nature, vivid and well integrated into the play via Orlando’s notes to Rosalind.

Leon’s Audrey, meanwhile, is flirty and floundering over Tom Mison’s whimsical Touchstone, almost buckling at a single touch by the fool. He’s privy to a few moments in this staging which are so hilariously incredulous in nature (I shall not spoil the frankly barmy opening to the second act). The melancholy Jacques’ interaction with such a fellow is made all the more tragic when her joyous enlightenment comes to an end, and she must again carry the burden of experience on her shoulders in a way which sees her slouch forwards, taking great pain in having to move a single muscle. The comedy is in her initial rigidity, which contrasts significantly with the movement of everything else, and the chorus.

Inclusivity is integral for As You Like It’s merriment, and that’s achieved not only in its casting (of disabled and transgender performers), but the way in which the company groups together to maintain a rigorous tempo. To embrace life, as the Bard’s beloved play encourages, is to find joy in the presence of others and follow the rhythm that comes with it. A festive message conveyed in Rourke’s adaptation? Indisputably so, and the way it is so passionately shared is most pleasing indeed.

As You Like It is now playing at @sohoplace until 28 January 2023.

All performances are captioned with screens visible from every seat. Audio described performances are scheduled to take place on 28 December and 21 January, with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance taking place on 26 January.


Production Image: Manuel Harlan.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘As You Like It’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and while I know Rose Ayling-Ellis and Gabriella Leon in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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