As You Like It
Soho Place, London
The dark days at the year’s end are the perfect time to gather by candlelight for tales of darkness vanquished and hope rekindled. Two London theatres offer just the right shows, both beguiling and, in both, wily women use their wit and words to outrun the plans of a tyrannical man.
To Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden first, where Rosalind and Celia turn banishment from court into a form of liberation, in a gorgeous staging of As You Like It at the Soho Place theatre. Slipping into trousers (Rosalind) and rustic wear (Celia), the two young noblewomen transform themselves into Ganymede and Aliena, with Rosalind savouring the freedom to tutor, incognito, the dishy Orlando in the ways of love, and Celia dizzy with excitement at being out from under the thumb of her bullying father.
Josie Rourke’s beautiful, intimate production relishes the warmth of the circular auditorium, bringing to the staging the simplicity often found at Shakespeare’s Globe and slipping deftly through the light and dark of this dappled story. There’s little scenery; instead the stage is dominated by a grand piano at which musician and composer Michael Bruce sits throughout, shaping the atmosphere with music and patiently bearing the frequent interruptions from besotted lovers who fling themselves atop his piano in dramatic gestures of despair or desire.
Rob Jones’s design fuses an Elizabethan aesthetic with the present day. The costumes (designed by Jones and Poppy Hall) encase the courtiers in glittering high-concept versions of ruffs and corsets and swathe the forest runaways in desirable, soft-hued knitwear.
Shifts in lighting and precipitation sculpt the season and the mood: a candlelit chandelier lights the court scenes; glowing autumn leaves carpet the stage as the characters arrive in the forest; snow drifts down softly over the body of faithful old servant Adam as he eases out of this life (a wonderful performance from June Watson). It’s clear that the forest, as so often in Shakespeare, represents a psychological space as much as a physical one — a place of potential where people can transform, revive, become themselves.
And the biggest innovation in Rourke’s production comes with the casting of Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is deaf, as Celia. The actor — known to many as the winner of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing — brings a lovely, sunny openness to the part and her relationship with Leah Harvey’s vivid, intelligent Rosalind gains a new layer. The pair use various sign languages to speak to one another, which seems to deepen their affectionate bond.
The theme of communication — already present in the play, with Rosalind’s lessons for Orlando — is subtly emphasised, with captions and sign language woven through the entire production. Celia’s tyrannical father, Duke Frederick (Tom Edden), refuses to sign and so she is forced to speak aloud to him; she often spots the looming pitfalls as Rosalind flirts with Orlando but cannot warn her friend, who has her eyes on the prize.
Alfred Enoch is an endearingly impetuous Orlando, ablaze with terrible poetry and earnest passion; Gabriella Leon, who is also deaf, makes a wonderfully raunchy shepherdess; and Martha Plimpton’s strange and disconsolate Jaques glides through the action, offsetting the giddy love stories with a well-founded melancholy about the brevity of life. The production’s capricious pace and light touch mean that it misses some of the reflectiveness and the through-line of the piece: it feels disjointed in places. But this is a joyous staging, and its rich diversity of casting embraces the spirit of both the play and this new venue.
To January 28, sohoplace.org
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
In Hakawatis, Hannah Khalil’s new play in the diminutive, candlelit chamber of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, she brings a playful authorial conceit to the age-old tale of Scheherazade and her ploy to stave off execution through narrative cliffhangers. Here five women, locked in a dungeon and awaiting their turn to be bedded and beheaded as the murderous ruler’s wives, realise with horror that their storytelling saviour might develop writer’s block. And so they begin to create stories between them, smuggling them out to Scheherazade and praying that their words will be enough to placate a vengeful king’s heart.
At first their efforts are hesitant or they rehash old fables — albeit with fierce arguments about the precise details. But gradually the women find their voices and craft tales that speak for and about them through metaphor (several of them written for this show by Hanan al-Shaykh, Suhayla El-Bushra and Sara Shaarawi). Through the veil of storytelling we glimpse abusive childhoods and violent marriages. The women discuss the art of writing — the use of suspense, the importance of a hook, the power of suggestion — and find themselves so caught up in one story that they act it out, forgetting the grim circumstances of their confinement. It’s fascinating, funny, playful — and often quite amazingly rude.
These women are emphatically not victims: they are resourceful and resilient. While they are defined by type — the warrior (Laura Hanna), the dancer (Houda Echouafni), the young person (Alaa Habib), the writer (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi), the wise (Roann Hassani McCloskey) — they change through the experience. Hanna’s abrasive fighter reveals her vulnerability; Habib’s naive teenager grows in confidence and clarity.
More of this definition earlier would be good: the shape of the piece is a little muddy and it takes a long time for the women’s characters and relationships with one another to emerge. Some of the theorising about who gets to tell and define stories leaps out awkwardly. Meanwhile the circular, static nature of the piece and the lack of incident, while a deliberate alternative to the cut-and-thrust of action-based narratives, makes for a slow and sometimes sticky pace.
But this is still a wise, witty show that celebrates the power of imagination and the collective strength of women, and it’s deftly delivered by a very good ensemble. Pooja Ghai’s staging (a co-production with Tamasha) draws out the playfulness of storytelling and delights in the venue’s use of candles, with the women passing a taper to the narrator of each story. There’s quiet recognition too of the women’s practicality: while listening they often wash, tidy up or rinse out clothes.
Rosa Maggiora’s set takes on the warm glow of an old painting and the whole thing is laced with music from the gallery above. And finally, as the cell door finally opens and the women tiptoe out, the show leaves a question mark hanging over their next moves — ending, as is only right, on a cliffhanger.
To January 14, shakespearesglobe.com