The Winter's Tale
Cheek by Jowl
Silk Street Theatre, Barbican Centre
At the end of the last millennium, London welcomed two of the best productions of The Winter's Tale in living memory in as many weeks.
Gregory Doran's for the RSC featured the future Sir Antony Sher, while the Maly Drama Theatre brought over a version from St Petersburg directed by Declan Donnelan and designed by Nick Ormerod.
Two decades later, under the banner of their own Cheek by Jowl, the pair return with an English language version that creates more than a hint of the unforgettable magic of their earlier effort.
This time around, the dress is modern, as are many of the attitudes and mannerisms, while the set initially appears bland to the point of dullness. However, as the 2¾ hours develop, a large packing crate and single bench, both white, acquire almost miraculous qualities, aided by a soundtrack and clever lighting (respectively created by Paddy Cunneen and Judith Greenwood), both of which are integral features of the evening.
In the hands of the excellent Orlando James, the opening depicts King Leontes of Sicilia as an immature monarch, seemingly struggling to embrace the behaviour expected of an adult, let alone a king.
The pleasure in this production lies in our ability to get far into his mind, thanks to the technique of isolating a speaker and allowing him or her to manipulate the human mannequins that his fellows become when a soliloquy or aside is required.
In the King's mind, the dignified Natalie Radmall-Quirke's good Queen Hermione and Edward Sayer in the role of his childhood friend Polixenes, now King of Bohemia, are enjoying an affair. Once the obsession takes hold, Leontes doubts his own parenthood of an unborn babe and even Tom Cawte playing his son Mamillius, whose tantrums are frightening but also suggest kinship with a father still mired in spoilt childhood.
After a quietly moving attempt by Hermione to defend her honour in a court of law and an oracular vindication, supported by Joy Richardson following in Dame Judi Dench's footsteps as a sincere, condemnatory Paulina, the action moves to Bohemia where a filmed bear dramatically fulfils Shakespeare's most famous stage direction.
For the most part, this territory is peopled by the Irish rather than the Bohemians, though the gentry still cling to Received Pronunciation.
This is also the place where the company become excessively modern with mixed results.
Ryan Donaldson as Autolycus is as tuneful a minstrel as one could wish for but not as funny as one has come to expect.
Young lovers Florizel and Perdita seem devoted and passionate during a riotous, rock-inspired sheep shearing contest until stopped in their tracks by a mysterious pairing primarily disguised by cool shades.
The final phase of the drama begins as panicked comedy but moves into what is indisputably one of the best scenes in drama, orchestrated as brilliantly on this occasion as the creators did with Maly, leaving the audience enchanted and deeply moved when the lights finally go down.
In a novel venture, the production is to be streamed live from the Barbican at 7:30PM on 19 April and can be seen on Cheek by Jowl's web site.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher