The Winter’s Tale
Ned Hopkins | 14 Feb 2019 10:45am
Photo: Ellie Kurtzz
At what age are children ready to start watching Shakespeare? Judging by the rapt attention of the youngsters in the audience of this hour-long version of The Winter’s Tale in-the-round in The Dorfman this afternoon, it would seem around eight. Certainly, the NT has pitched this version at that age group and upwards – though it makes for a highly diverting hour for all ages. It’s one of my own favourite plays and I must have been the oldest person there, but was enchanted too!
Yet, having been a primary school teacher in my time, I wouldn’t relish the prospect of responding the next day to awkward questions touching on such subjects as infidelity and illegitimacy from a class of first year juniors – albeit as only imagined in the warped mind of Leontes. And if some of the play’s plotting and language may go over the heads of the younger children, the show provides enough colour, movement and creative ideas to hold their attention.
Ruth Mary Johnson, the director of this thoroughly engaging version, suggests it is actually the good sense and hope of the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel, that ultimately triumphs over the ‘misbehaviour of the adults’ and provides the predominant theme of the piece – not jealousy. And whilst there have been many psychological interpretations of Leontes’ erratic behaviour, mercifully jealousy is not allowed to overpower the pastoral fairy tale in the way Othello’s obsessive behaviour leads to tragedy in that much darker play.
Not that we escape tragedy altogether. One of the strengths of The Winter’s Tale is how it embraces a wide range of ideas and emotions. Hermione and Leontes’ young son Mamillius (effectively played here by one of several puppets brilliantly designed by Sam Wyer) dies early on. The assumption always seems to be of a broken heart – I never totally buy that, but I suppose the playwright had to provide a melancholy reaction to his father’s appalling treatment of his mother. And, of course Antigonus also loses his life – here somewhat perfunctorily pursued by an offstage bear. I was rather hoping we’d meet the bear. We rarely do as most directors seem to be embarrassed by that particular stage direction.
Talking of puppets, my favourite was an irrepressible sheep, whose antics in the hands of the Old Shepherd especially delighted all the young people in the front row.
Justin Audibert begins his condensed version with Perdita and Florizel’s wedding. All seems to be going well until Perdita stumbles over her vows. She turns to the audience and explains that events have happened too fast and she needs time to think her story through. How did she get here? Time travels quickly backwards and we are soon at the beginning in the Sicilian court and Polixenes’ visit from Bohemia to his old friend Leontes. The ending brings us full circle with a dance round the maypole and, with explanations out of the way, the happy couple can finally celebrate.
It is very much a company show with actors doubling up as required, so it’s almost invidious singling out any one. Joseph Adelakun, however, successfully negotiates the traps inherent in the part of the jealous husband by playing Leontes with harsh conviction mitigated by abject humiliation when he finally sees he was wrong. Aisha Toussaint gives her warm but conflicted Perdita an appealing Scottish accent – and there is nice work from Christina Modestou as Paulina, the albeit anguished Fairy Godmother of the play, who stage manages the reappearance of Hermione as a statue which comes to life at the end. Or is it a statue? Has Hermione simply been hidden from danger for sixteen years? Wreh-Asha Walton makes a beautifully dignified statue – another strong performance.
The assorted, mainly cheerful contemporary-ish costumes (designer Lucy Sierra) and effective use of original music (composer: Jonathan Girling) all help the adaptation add up to a satisfying whole.
Photo: Ellie Kurtzz