As You Like It review – Josie Rourke takes us into the liberating delight of Arden

A piano, prominent on an otherwise empty stage, is a clear sign that this production will place sound at the center of the room filled with Shakespeare’s songs. It’s the first thing we hear and becomes the most consistent voice in this pastoral, syncopating its comedy and heightening its romance. Lovers, outcasts and locals strolling through Arden wink at its pianist-composer, Michael Bruce, and ask him to “shut up” or play at the right time.

This mime is part of a larger concept behind director Josie Rourke’s delicate and delightful production, which strikes the perfect balance between West End spectacle and Shakespearian purity. Speeches of love, friendship and loyalty between the characters are accompanied by the physicality and intimacy of British Sign Language, as essential to the drama as music and song. It is organically intertwined and brings the intensities of the piece to the surface.

Adorable minx-ish Celia (Rose Ayling-Ellis) talks to her banished cousin Rosalind (Leah Harvey) almost exclusively by sign, which sparks physical comedy and also genuine tenderness between them. It doubles as their own secret language, in a way, and their brotherhood is as strong as the love story between Rosalind and Orlando (Alfred Enoch), whose romance is dizzying but genuine and both actors are natural with the verse.

Robert Jones’ setting is a deceptively simple magic box: a single chandelier hanging from the courtyard but the stage filling with leaves as we enter Arden in a sudden drop of foliage from a tree-like tangle above. The falling forest creates a beautiful world of russet leaves dotted across the scene.

Costumes change as does the setting, from gothic courtly glamor – a bejeweled black Elizabethan dress, which resembles Alexander McQueen’s twist on ruffs and doublets – to country attire. The set shines in the dewy light of Howard Harrison to create an intimacy that also envelops the audience.

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

Martha Plimpton as Jaques gives the play’s most famous lines (“Everyone is a scene”) a freshness and seriousness and all the other actors shine as well. The cast list is accompanied by pronouns, which seems appropriate to Arden, a wilderness of discovery and transformation. Harvey (they/them) plays Ganymede/Rosalind with natural fluidity and there’s no costume change in the final reveal, which leaves gender identity subtly open. And it’s through sound that the revelation comes as Harvey jumps onto the piano and bursts into song.

“To freedom, not banishment,” Celia said, following Rosalind into the forest. What an exquisite release this Arden is.

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