February 16, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (National Theatre) @ The Dorfman

I’m something of a Winter’s Tale completist these days, so it was a joy to get to see the National’s new touring version for young people. Stripped down to an hour and five minutes, Justin Audibert’s pared-down production took a complex and devastating play, and turned it into a heartwarming, and often uncompromising, examination of loss and redemption.

Gabby Wong began the production, stepping onto the stage and introducing herself as Perdita, not yet born, telling the story of how she came to be found. She then took on the role of Mamillius, inviting the audience to see the first three acts of Winter’s Tale through her older brother’s eyes. Mamillius was a puppet designed by Sam Wyer, an expressive, life-size child whose neck craned as he looked up at the feuding adults around him. Wong’s beautiful evocation of Mamillius’s playful, then terrified, and then ailing self fleshed out a pitiful figure, and focusing it around the child allowed the contemporary interest in the play’s implications for childhood experience to come to the fore.

In some ways I wish the conceit had been committed to even further – it would have been fascinating to see more of Mamillius listening at doorways to his father’s off-centre rants, for instance – but this might have been simply unbearable. With the text heavily pared down, Leontes’s (Nana Amoo-Gottfried) jealousy kicked in quickly, his wife and friend slowing down during a dance as he spat out his ‘Too hot’. In the context of a matinee for very young children and their parents, the play’s content felt even more dangerous and upsetting than usual. While the brisk clip meant that the play didn’t have time to linger on those scenes of terror, I was thrilled to see a production for young children refusing to sanitise the threats of domestic violence.

This isn’t to suggest that the production was dark; quite the reverse. Sicilia was a rave, with Adrian Richards taking a podium to show off his moves as Polixenes, and a carefree, kitsch mise-en-scene. The women weren’t systematically oppressed, and Tamara Camacho in particular was a powerful, confident Hermione, who drew a small cheer from the audience when she slapped the rather pathetic Leontes. Only the institution of kingship kept Leontes in control. The omission of most of the apparatus of the trial sequence had the effect of making their final confrontation more of a battle between equals, which only became uneven on the report of Mamillius’s death. Paulina (Stephanie Levi-John), meanwhile, seemed to dwarf Leontes, who in the presence of these stoic, uncompromising opponents seemed diminished, resorting to bluster. I enjoyed Amoo-Gottfried’s performance which, with the longer of Leontes’s speeches cut, captured more of his fear and reactionary defensiveness than I’ve seen before.

Lucy Sierra’s set made striking, economic use of a simple circular podium in the centre of the in-the-round auditorium. It began as a dance podium, but soon became Mamillius’s bed. As Leontes and Hermione fought, the pyjamaed child lay down quietly on the podium, slowly ailing, until Wong removed her hand from him and let him rest still. I found it heartbreaking, giving the primary victim of Leontes’s jealousy prominence and drawing a direct correlation between the abuse of jealousy and suspicion and the death of the child.

The circle at the centre of the set remained a focal point for the remainder of the production. Perdita’s basket was laid on it, and Antigonus (Johndeep More) ran around all four sides of the stage while running away from the offstage, rather surprisingly scarily rendered sounds of the bear. For the passage of time, a large clock hand was affixed to the podium, which the characters turned to move along the years. A maypole was erected in it as a focus for the sheep-shearing, with a carpet of grass laid out around it, and naturally it became the podium for Hermione’s statue. As people were repeatedly drawn to the prominence placed on the figures at the centre, the stage repeatedly spatially reoriented itself around objects of gaze, wonder and protection.

The show was rather stolen by a hilarious puppet sheep, Gina, who chased Camilla (Shazia Nicholls) around the audience, sniffed at audience members’ sweets, and got its own ovation. Otherwise, the primary focus of the Bohemia scenes was a more sentimental take on the love story between Perdita, dressed in simple white gown, and Kenton Thomas’s Florizel. The clarity of the scenes, especially through cutting Autolycus and most of the maying, was welcome, and set up a simple set of stakes for the production’s conclusion.

In a beautifully abstracted sequence, the reunions were done in contemporary English. Out of the podium, the ensemble pulled a large blue circular sheet of the kind used in theatre games, which they rippled as the sea and then threw up into the air to create a falling canopy. Characters shouted at one another across the circle, Leontes asking Polixenes for forgiveness; Polixenes giving his blessing to his son; Camilla and Leontes meeting again, and then one ran over to the other and embraced before the sheet collapsed again. The simple device was beautifully clear. The only slightly jarring note for me was Perdita running to Leontes rather than the other way round; I feel that Leontes being the one to move would have worked better with his contrition.

As the reunions finished, the ensemble suddenly pulled the sheet into the centre and wrapped it around Hermione, becoming the statue on the podium, who was then framed by a garden arch. The scene focused on wonder, and I think this is the first time I’ve seen the statue actually appear to be interpreted as a statue coming to life, to the sound of gasps from the audience. As the chorus sang, Hermione shrugged the sheet off her shoulders and opened her eyes, gazing in amazement on those around her as if genuinely freshly awoken, and greeted everyone one-by-one.

In a slightly anticlimactic moment, the podium was yielded to Florizel and Perdita, with Hermione joining their hands and then bringing them up onto her level, which returned the narrative to Perdita and her love plot at the expense, perhaps, of the more moving reunions. But as glitter fell from the ceiling and the lovers were momentarily framed in the afterglow in the final blackout, the production closed on a lovely image of harmony.

I’m thrilled to see such a complex play being adapted for young people, and in a way that didn’t sweep the play’s unpleasantness or jarring notes under the (grassy) rug. The intelligent combination of contemporary prose, Shakespearean verse and simple song (composed by Jonathan Girling), the lively dance (Lucy Culllingford) and the sincere performances that refused to caricature the actors, were all exemplary of the kind of stripped-down Shakespeare that I’m thrilled the National is producing. And as a final note – it was moving to see an audience of predominantly white children having perhaps their first experience with Shakespeare performed by a company made up of fantastic BAME actors, and a fantastic experience to see those children laughing, cheering and mourning with these characters.

Posted in Theatre review