As You Like It Review – Josie Rourke takes us into the liberating joy of Arden

A piano, prominent on an otherwise empty stage, is a clear sign that this production will put sound at the heart of Shakespeare’s song-filled opus. It is the first thing we hear and becomes the most constant voice of this pastoral, syncopating its comedy and intensifying its romanticism. The lovers, outcasts and locals who roam Arden wink at its composer pianist, Michael Bruce, and urge him to “shut up” or play when the time is right.

That mime is part of a grander concept behind director Josie Rourke’s delicate and delightful production, which strikes a perfect balance between West End spectacle and Shakespearean purity. The discourses of love, friendship and loyalty between the characters are accompanied by the physicality and intimacy of British Sign Language, as central to the drama as the music and song. It is organically interwoven and brings the intensity of the work to the surface.

A lovely Celia (Rose Ayling-Ellis) speaks to her banished cousin Rosalind (Leah Harvey) almost exclusively through sign, which ignites physical comedy as well as genuine tenderness between them. It doubles as their secret language, somehow, and their friendship feels as strong as the romance between Rosalind and Orlando (Alfred Enoch), whose romance is dizzying yet genuine and both actors are naturals with the towards.

Robert Jones’ set is a deceptively simple magic box: a single dangling chandelier at court, but the stage fills with leaves as we enter Arden in a sudden fall of foliage from a tangle of trees above. The falling forest creates a beautiful world of russet leaves scattered across the stage.

The costumes change just as the scenery, from gothic glamor at court – black and bejeweled Elizabethan dress, reminiscent of Alexander McQueen’s twist on ruffs and doublets – to country attire. The set glows with Howard Harrison’s dewy light to create an intimacy that also envelops the audience.

Related: Rose Ayling-Ellis: ‘I stopped being a deaf character on TV’

Martha Plimpton, as Jaques, gives the play’s most famous lines (“All the world’s a stage”) a freshness and gravitas, and every other actor shines too. The cast list is accompanied by pronouns, which are a perfect fit for Arden, a wilderness that has matured with discovery and transformation. Harvey (them/them) plays Ganymede/Rosalind with a natural fluidity and there is no costume change in the final reveal, which leaves gender identity subtly open. And it is through sound that the revelation comes as Harvey leaps onto the piano and bursts into song.

“To freedom and not exile,” says Celia as she follows Rosalind into the forest. What an exquisite release this Arden is.

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