It may have only been open for a couple of months, but @sohoplace, London’s newest theatre is already staging its first original production. This new version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It has director Josie Rourke at the helm, and an impressive cast list, so expectations were already set high.
The theatre itself is a fantastic space, and the in the round staging, with excellent sight lines lends itself beautifully to the mystical setting of the Forest of Arden. This is one of Shakespeare’s less favoured works, in some circles anyway, but it is a play that pushes the boundaries of possibilities, and Rourke has embraced this fully.
For a start, it’s set to music. With a new score composed by Michael Bruce almost the entire play is underscored with gentle lilting music that suits the particular scene. There are a couple of songs too (often beautifully sung by Allie Dniel) that help to bring Shakespeare’s text to life, it acts as an aid rather than taking over, but neither is it unobtrusive. Michael Bruce sits at a piano semi sunken into the middle of the stage for the duration, there’s no missing the importance of the music in this piece.
Another very welcome addition to Shakespeare’s original is integrated BSL. Playing Celia is Rose Ayling-Ellis, making her West End debut following her win on Strictly Come Dancing, a triumph that was only dwarfed by the uptake in interest for BSL classes her appearance generated. Ayling-Ellis, isn’t the only performer to use BSL during the performance, and it is very cleverly threaded through the whole thing.
Surtitles are also used, though sometimes they moved a little quick, but making this As You Like It even more accessible, perhaps even helping those in the audience less fluent in Shakespearean prose to understand the progression of the plot. Here’s where the production really gets it right; BSL as a language is very literal, while Shakespeare is absolutely not, and so a combination of BSL and other signing techniques are used to create this visual storytelling technique that ends up being quite captivating for all members of the audience.
The staging is simple but effective, with falling leaves carpeting the forest floor. The costumes too create this other-worldy feel that seems both familiar and strange at the same time. Resplendent in a green tunic, Martha Plimpton is a wonderfully melancholy Jacques, delivering key lines, such as the ‘All The World’s a Stage’ speech with the right mix of gravitas and wit.
And this is a very witty interpretation of As You Like It, with some more modern twists thrown in for an extra laugh or two. As Touchstone, the fool, Tom Mison has the audience in the palm of his hands, while Gabriella Leon has us wishing to see more of Audrey.
Leah Harvey is captivating as Rosalind, easily commanding the stage with this meaty leading role that disposes of heteronormative and gender stereotypes. Alongside an electric performance from Alfred Enoch as Orlando, that sizzles with blossoming of young love.
A new theatre presents an old classic with a modern and fresh take, the inclusion of music and BSL makes for a terrifically accessible As You Like It, while some incredible performances make this an enchanting watch.