As You Like It feels like a play that used to be produced more than it currently is. There’s a lot of meat in its central idea of a good Duke banished from court to a forest where a better society thrives and where people can transform themselves and their views, but there are also a lot of tiresome clowns as well as Jacques, a man who wanders round being miserable at great length.
Jacques here is a woman in the shape of the marvellous Martha Plimpton who begins the action in a red wig of raised curls (with casual pipe holding it in place) and a glittering black gown, like a vision of Elizabeth, and then prowls the play – black sparkles replaced by britches, soft velvets and furs – singing and speaking her songs of woe with exactly the right balance of sadness and realism. Her “All the world’s a stage” is beautifully managed, hitting a note of true melancholy as its closing lines mark a death.
Rourke’s other principal innovations include putting a grand piano centre stage, played by Michael Bruce, the composer. The instrument becomes a prop, something to lie on, to jump on, to hide under while Bruce becomes part of the action, responding to the cast, making his own musical jokes.
Finally, in an inspired stroke of casting Rose Ayling-Ellis, a deaf actor best known from EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing, is Celia, her bond with Leah Harvey’s fierce and clever Rosalind reinforced by the fact that they sign to each other, separate from the court’s hearing world. In fact, when Celia has to confront her terrible father as he sends them both away, is the only time she speaks. But it is not as expressive as the moment she signs ‘monster’.
The rest of the time she talks in a combination of sign languages; the audience can follow on surtitles which record all the lines; the cast communicate in a mixture of ways, and include another deaf actress, Gabriella Leon (who also speaks and signs). What’s particularly wonderful is the vibrancy and animation Ayling-Ellis brings both to her signing and to the development of her relationship with Rosalind. She gives the play its lively, emotional heart, a good listener and reactor as well as a speaker. It’s a terrific performance.
As Orlando, besotted with Rosalind but wooing her in the shape of her male transformation into Ganymede, Alfred Enoch is also sensational. He has the gift of openness, allowing his thoughts to move across his face expressively: his surprise when he beats the professional wrestler; his confusion when he finds himself kissing a supposed boy. Harvey matches him in comedy – they throw a delicious swoon when believing he is dead – though the poetry of some of their thinking goes missing in the general mayhem.
In general, there’s a slight sense of effort in the production, set simply by Robert Jones on a parquet floor with coloured leaves dropping from a picture frame above the action. But there are also some really intelligent touches: June Watson brings a directness and clarity to both Adam (the old servant who dies) and Corin, a shepherd whose practicality constantly undercuts the pastoral; Mary Malone’s Phoebe is a hundred miles from the usual busty wench, and instead presented as a woman of resolve; in Tom Mison’s hands, Touchstone is both understandable and actually funny.
As You Like It is the first new production to come to @sohoplace, and it graces the space with its fresh approach. New thoughts for a new theatre feel like a good place to end the year.