The Winter's Tale
A Steam Industry/Courtyard production
Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton
London is doing well for new theatre spaces and this production shows off the Courtyard, a comfortably refurbished building containing a friendly bar, theatre and studio in up-and-coming Hoxton, just to the east of the City.
The man from Stratford is certainly flavour of the month in London, this being the fourth London opening drawn from his canon, after King Lear, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, in only three weeks.
The start of Phil Willmott's new interpretation of this late Shakespearean comedy will be positively alarming to those who know the work. In Nicky Bunch's attractive, tree-lined, pastoral setting in the round, the knowing will be grabbed by a fear that the play must have started two hours ago and they have arrived during the interval.
Rather than the usual court scene, the play opens at what appears to be Perdita and Florizel's country nuptials. There, a hairy, rotund, Irish tinker hippy, Phil Sealey's Autolycus, regales his gullible punters with a historical tale, visually set in the early years of the last century,
This introduces Sicilia's King Leontes, his Queen Hermione and their mutual best friend, another King, Polixenes of Bohemia. At last we are back on the normal on track in a fluid production that cuts some scenes and characters to sustain a drama where the impetus never lets up.
One loss is the King's young son, Mamilius, briefly present but silent. However, for the most part, an 18-strong cast do the original play justice through a three-hour running time that builds to an epic and always moving finale that brings a tear to the eye however often one sees The Winter's Tale.
The shaven-headed Gwilym Lloyd makes an impressive Leontes. The King of Sicilia has less time than usual to build his ire and jealousy at the close bond between his wife and best friend but does so convincingly and is equally good when contrite. Unusually, he and others also age convincingly.
Despite the entreaties of his large band of acolytes, the King banishes and kills his nearest and dearest until a trial scene that enables Natasha Seale, playing Hermione, to move not only those in court but also the audience, as she tearfully proclaims her innocence.
Nevertheless, she is lost and her new-born babe Perdita, carried off to barren, snowy Bohemia by an Eastern European Antigonus. There, first she is discovered by an exceptionally funny double act of local shepherds Robert Donald as the friendly Grandfather and Andrew Venning really winning in the part of the infinitely gullible younger man. Then, sixteen years on, we return to our starting point of the attempted nuptials.
The lovers in this case look extremely young and Amber Tibbitts is very fetching as Perdita, as well as being a talented actress throughout. Following a return to court and stunning coup de théàtre, what is effectively a three-wedding happy ending ensues to leave the audience warmed with a cheering Yuletide glow.
Shakespeare really knew what he was doing with his mix of high comedy and moving (melo)drama and despite a soundtrack which rarely adds to the other pleasures, Phil Willmott presents an enjoyable evening that launches this new theatre at a level that it should aspire to maintain.
Playing until 27th January
Reviewer: Philip Fisher