Who would have thought that the new Sohoplace, from the outside so glossy and commercial-looking, would quickly start to push against theatre boundaries? EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis’s triumph in Strictly caused a rush of people to enrol in sign-language classes. As Celia in Josie Rourke’s production of As You Like It, in which she uses a mixture of British Sign Language and sign mime, Ayling-Ellis – and Gabriella Leon, also deaf, who makes a striking debut as Audrey – should help us consider what we think of as stage language. We may also be obliged to realise how things are skewed for some spectators. You usually have to squinny to see surtitles, as if you shouldn’t really be looking; in a small but significant change, at sohoplace they are displayed around the auditorium lower down, far more evidently.
This is not the first time that a deaf actor has taken the role on the London stage. Four years ago, at the Globe, Nadia Nadajarah delivered Celia’s speeches in British Sign Language, in a beautiful collaboration with her fellow actors, who occasionally provided spoken translations. Though engaged and engaging, Ayling-Ellis’s influence on the company is less precise and pervasive. Yet as she moves, sometimes flexed like an archer to unleash a gestural arrow, she is crucial to a production that, intimately staged in the round, is propelled by the idea that Shakespeare’s comedy is pliable, multi-vocal, often musical. Composer and pianist Michael Bruce is on stage; a Forest of Arden theme is played to produce a version of pastoral; occasionally lines are sung rather than spoken.
Leah Harvey is a fresh and candid Rosalind; Alfred Enoch injects vigour into the often limp Orlando (though he overeggs the humour of his woodland verses). The finest moment comes from Martha Plimpton, who is a magnificent Jaques. Looking as if she might have strolled over from a Restoration coffee shop – big hair, breeches, long clay pipe – she irradiates the seven ages of man speech, so that it too is a celebration of fluidity and variety. As if describing a pageant moving in front of her, she makes vivacity tremble through every line; this is far more than sardonic lament. You think you catch that gleam on the schoolboy’s “shining morning face”.
Unlike its hero, Mandela is at odds with itself. I have seldom seen a show that began with such vitality and which waned so rapidly. The strength of this new musicalised biography (music and lyrics by brothers Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky) is seen in the opening moments, in choruses and Gregory Maqoma’s choreography: to do with a fierce and desperate vigour and swelling, Xhosa-inspired sound: smashing voices, bodies flinging themselves against hostile air, moving together. Solidarity, not solos.
The promise evaporates as Schele Williams’s production moves from protest into history. In front of Hannah Beachler’s abstract, fiery design, passbooks are waved, there is a burst of gunfire: the Sharpeville massacre. Mandela is spurred to action and imprisoned. There is a cursory look at Winnie Mandela’s running of gangs and her rift with her husband. There is release and a sight of one of those signature shirts: why only one?
Music and lyrics meander along not fused, not propelled one by the other, sometimes barely coinciding. Long lines – “How will I tell my Winnieeeee I’m about to beee the shadow of my… ” – straggle and run out of steam. Not through lack of vocal talent. Danielle Fiamanya is terrific as Winnie Mandela: first torn, then implacable; you long for more of the only character given a hint of complexity. As Mandela, Michael Luwoye, who played the title role in Hamilton on Broadway, is sonorous, imposing. Yet Laiona Michelle’s script suggests none of the agility and intellectual heft that made Mandela not only a leader but a commanding lawyer and negotiator. The abundance of his personality is missing: though constantly praised for his sense of humour, he is allowed barely a twinkle. Saccharine episodes featuring his children seem intended to vouch for his moral authority. My musical companion, Billy (15), put it pungently: “It made me feel like marching, but I didn’t know what I was marching for.” Mighty Mandela deserves better.
“I’m very straightforward. I come from Chelmsford.” If only the heroine of Kerry Jackson, owner of El Barco, a restaurant in getting-very-trendy Walthamstow, were being ironic. But irony is not in her repertoire. She wears cleavage-propelling tops, does joyful dancing and Brexiteering. She might have been dreamed up as an example of merry but alarming womanhood by her smugly sensitive customer, a philosophy don who pads in on vegan shoes (Kerry thinks these look “like they’ve been sewed by a witch in a forest”) and fits in some bonking with Kerry when he is not reading Schopenhauer. He too might have been conjured by her as an opposite. When the characters in April De Angelis’s new play are not being contrasted, they are describing themselves. The don’s brainy daughter, washed up after her mother’s death, says to her dad as they snuggle together listening to Bach and teasing each other with etymologies: “So many people would like to be us… ?”
In Indhu Rubasingham’s cheery production, Richard Kent’s design spins between muted bourgeois and hyper-colourful El Barco. Fay Ripley roars gorgeously away in the title role. Dialogue is sprinkled with bright insights into the gulfs cracking British society apart: two outlying extremes are represented by a homeless man reading Jane Austen and a black British woman whose residential status is challenged. There is, though, no sense of contradiction, no sense that characters might be concealed from themselves. It is peculiarly approximate from the playwright who more than a decade ago, in Jumpy, offered a lightly written but vehemently felt survey of women’s lives: that play sounded predictable but was realised with precision. At a time when class division has waned as a subject, Kerry Jackson sounds more surprising but proves disappointingly mechanical. Pop-up predicaments.
Star ratings (out of five)
As You Like It ★★★
Kerry Jackson ★★