Rose Ayling-Ellis is eloquence itself, but why the boring Shakespeare-shearing elsewhere?

Rose Ayling-Ellis as Celia in As You Like It at @sohoplace – Johan Persson

Is the West End newcomer about to deliver a huge boot at the back of Shakespeare’s usual strongholds? There’s no doubt about it: Josie Rourke’s direction of As You Like It, the first in-house production from Nimax’s recently opened 602-seat theater, @sohoplace, demonstrates how this hip and trendy is suitable for classic theatrical delights.

Transport-wise, it couldn’t be more central; better connected than the occasional RSC haunt, the Barbican. Additionally, its round configuration has an intimacy and warmth that matches the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the interior space of Shakespeare’s Globe), while providing more comfort. And it’s like Rourke thumbing his nose at this latest Bankside location with a candlelit opening sequence that looks perfectly rivalry.

After Michael Bruce’s brooding pianist cobbles together a prominent grand piano, loop technology creates melodious polyphony, sweeping Martha Plimpton, goblet in hand, ruffed head, extravagant black dress, as if she had stepped out of an Elizabethan painting.

With enthusiasm and enthusiasm, she and the ensemble sing lines usually heard in Act II: “Blow, blow, thou winter’s wind…” It is one of many arrangements by Bruce, the composer in situ and tinkling throughout, like a silent movie accompanist. but also a presiding creative spirit, almost as if the action flowed from the keyboard.

A quaint candle chandelier and an autumnal flood of paper shreds heighten the sense of welcoming theater newcomers without anything too drastic to scare off the uninitiated. And the quaint approachability of the production affirms that with its gentle cheerfulness and light-hearted melancholy (languidly embodied by Plimpton’s Jaques), the piece offers a restorative counterweight to the end-of-year gloom. The Forest of Arden is an uncertain place of estrangement from “society” – it is where lovers Orlando and Rosalind flee – but it is also a site of empowering and liberating friendship.

Martha Plimpton as Jaques in As You Like It, at @sohoplace - Johan Persson

Martha Plimpton as Jaques in As You Like It, at @sohoplace – Johan Persson

The beating heart of the production resides in this fiery center pair. Alfred Enoch is a wonderfully straight and lanky Orlando, a frightened fawn of a boy who proves his mettle in a first wrestling match, then wanders in a daze under the bewildering charm of Leah Harvey’s beaming cross-dressing Rosalind, the latter so smitten as she dabs her fingers on the wrestling mat, as if trying to mop up Orlando’s presence.

Rose Ayling-Ellis is also reeling from romantic upheavals as her cousin Celia. The nationally adored winner Strictly and the EastEnders star’s use of BSL and theatrical gestures are first exploited to foster a conspiratorial closeness with Rosalind (who reciprocates in kind), before she is not effectively dismissed, Ayling-Ellis proving as eloquent in her quiet distress as she is surprisingly vocal in railing to her lordly ogre of a father (although there are helpful text supertitles on all sides) .

These surtitles could still be more readable. I also felt less persuaded by some of the line breaks and sentence changes elsewhere. “Bring in with him, old dog” has become “old witch”, presumably considering the fact that June Watson (tremendous) is now playing the old servant Adam, but it rather shakes the canine spirit of her answer: “I ai I lost my teeth in your service.” In 2023, please, let’s have some more of Shakespeare as he wrote it, not as the directors imagine.

Until January 28. Tickets : sohoplace.org

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