A Winter’s Tale

Ignace Cornelissen
Unicorn Theatre, London

A Winter's Tale

First, let’s make it clear that this isn’t the play by Shakespeare. It is a translation of a play, originally written in Flemish, which tells much the same story.

As the programme describes it, it is “based on The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare which was adapted from Pandosto by Robert Green, which some people say was based on The Clerk’s Tale by Chaucer, who probably borrowed some of that from Boccaccio’s Decameron (by way of Petrach) but Boccaccio’s stories came from folk tales from all over the world, so who knows…”

You don’t get Shakespeare’s words, you lose some of his situations and gain other incidents but the outline is there of jealousy, wrong accusation, young love and reconciliation. The moment when Hermione’s statue breathes with life is gone, but then this Winter’s Tale doesn’t have an Hermione. The queen in this tale is called Tamara and she dies when her husband finds her guilty. That husband, here called King Teddy, spends sixteen years sitting by her corpse and there is no coming back to life except in the form of his daughter, who is Vicky not Perdita.

The story is told by a group of four actors who argue over how they will tell it and who will play what. Cornelissen’s text and Purni Morell’s production emphasise that this is all in a theatre. James Button’s design, carefully lit by David E Kidd, has the kind of simplicity that makes the best theatre magic. The cast spread white silk sheets on the stage, raise them billowing into the air to become palatial architecture and shake them into a rippling sea that rises into huge storm-lashed waves.

The actors, from the Unicorn’s resident company for this season, move easily from a chat with the audience to character role play in a way that maintains a feeling of a child’s “let’s pretend” without weakening dramatic effectiveness.

Ginny Holder’s beautiful Tamara (shoving a cushion up her skirt when she has to be pregnant) dies, then rising sheds her dress and her crown and places them on a dressmaker’s dummy to become the dead Queen while the actress morphs into her daughter, the sixteen-year-old Vicky.

Ben Caplan, as actor or King, remains someone who wants his own way, whether deciding Kae Alexander can only be prompter or, when she is given the role of a gamekeeper, gives royal orders sending her out of the limelight into the shadows of the forest.

Sam Swann plays Bohemia’s King Tunde, with whom King Teddy thinks Queen Tamara has been canoodling. When later he plays Tunde’s son Prince Bruno, Kae takes over the role of his father. She can because the gamekeeper has been lost at sea when he tries to save Queen Tamara’s baby. Meanwhile Ben Caplan becomes the fisherman who adopts and rears Vicky.

You are never in doubt who is whom, and this is part of the story-telling, not a matter of costume and make-up and heavy characterisation. There is a nice little touch for those well-versed in their Shakespeare for Cornelissen sends his kings on a bear hunt—and has ego-centric King Teddy posing with a bear actually shot by King Tunde.

This short play won’t give you the richness of Shakespeare and his language but it uses the techniques of theatre effectively. It seems less about adult passion, guilt and retribution but echoes playground games and rivalries. King Teddy, with a moat round his castle full of crocodiles, has the insecurity that makes a child bossy.

I can’t say I approve of a story that continues the fairytale tradition that it is OK for a Prince to marry a fisherman’s daughter once you discover a king is her real father. I would prefer new tales to be more democratic. But that’s not going to worry the young audience this play is aimed at. The school party I saw it with clearly enjoyed it. Their booking did not fill the theatre, which is perhaps why sometimes the actors played as though just to the front rows.

This company give delightful performances but I hope that when there is a full house their playing will reach out to everyone.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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