In the middle of winter in gloomy, gray London, the Sohoplace theatre on West End brought a burst of light in the form of Shakespeare’s famous comedy, As You Like It.
The Forest of Arden was a plain wooden stage, with a small hole for a piano, mirrored by a frame filled with bare branches. A wax-dripping chandelier provided a soft, comforting ambiance to the intimate theatre. One special feature to this show was the subtitles, shown on screens that lined the middle tier of seats.
A stage with such simple features can only be brought to life with a connected, and, in this case, star-studded cast. Alfred Enoch (How to Get Away with Murder, Harry Potter) as the young, dashing Orlando brought fire and yearning, which highlighted the playful disposition of Leah Harvey’s Rosalind and Rose Ayling-Ellis’s Celia. The fool can’t be left out of the mix, either. Touchstone, played by Tom Mison (Sleepy Hollow), was the exact comedic relief needed for the bittersweet parts of the show. Juxtaposed to the fool was Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) as the serious and melancholy Jaques. These stars, surrounded by an exuberant and unified ensemble, made Shakespeare not only accessible and enjoyable to their audience.
Rose Ayling-Ellis is the first Deaf actress to debut on West End. This aspect brought a whole new depth to Shakespeare’s play. The main ‘heroes’ of the story would all joyfully sign to one another, even when not directing speaking to her. The villain, Celia’s father and The Duke Senior, played by Tom Edden (Star Wars Ep. VII, Cinderella), not only did not sign to her, but would force her to speak. It was heart-wrenching to watch.
Although the darker scenes were devastating, the majority of the play was cheerful and hopeful. It is a love story, after all. Harvey and Enoch’s chemistry as Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando is undeniable, but the loving relationship between Celia and Rosalind is what shined. The way Leach Harvey and Rose Ayling-Ellis could laugh, sign, play and interact with one another felt like watching sisters perform magic.
And the singing.
The piano sat at a hole in the stage, often used as a prop. They were old, gentle songs that perfectly matched the cozy yet elegant aesthetic of the show, and the cast would flawlessly harmonize in almost a casual manner that would have even brought Shakespeare himself to tears.
The show sadly closed at Sohoplace on West End on January 28, 2023, but it made a lasting impression and a stride in the right direction of inclusivity. To call As You Like It at Sohoplace a “joyful experience” is an understatement. It was the performance of a lifetime.