The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town.
The Shakespeare Sessions company creates a stirring vision of madness and loss in this new production, adapted and directed by Ross McGregor.
In the depths of winter, Shakespeare’s story of recrimination, redemption and regeneration is enough to thaw even the frostiest heart.
There’s very little preamble before the action begins, and the tortured suspicions of King Leontes begin to hack away at his peace of mind. Is his pregnant wife Hermione having an affair with visiting king Polixenes (Ben Bradford)? If so, does that cast doubts over his son’s paternity? And who’s the daddy of the new baby about to be born?
Christopher Neels – a gifted and compelling peformer – brings the restless, jittery air of a congenitally unstable man to Leontes, and his sudden, horrifying descent into the madness of jealousy and murderous rage is disturbing indeed.
The difference between his private fears and public face is emphasised perhaps a little too obviously by darkening the lights alongside his troubled thoughts, and raising them again when he’s ‘back in the room’, so to speak.
However Martin Condon’s lighting design is actually one of the key strengths of this production. He uses hand-held spotlights and eerie shadows to create an almost monochrome world where nothing can thrive while Leontes’ dreadful crimes against his wife and children remain unatoned.
The steampunk-themed costume design by multi-tasking director Ross McGregor is also impressive, with his guards’ uniforms and covered faces particularly chilling. Grown-up Perdita’s cut-away party frock may be a bit raunchy for a country lass, but Remy Moynes looks beautiful and plays the lost girl with an appealing sweetness and innocence.
Mingling modern music and dance into the production worked brilliantly with this company’s Much Ado About Nothing, but feels rather less relaxed here. Some of the musical interludes are awkward, and the comic pastoral scenes lose their way at times.
But the beating heart of this Winter’s Tale is in the emotion expressed by the family torn apart by jealousy, and miraculously brought together again after many years. The reunion is made possible by the love and loyalty of Hermione’s true friend Paulina, played by the excellent Hannah Ellis, an actor whose clarity and insight shine throughout.
As Hermione, Elizabeth Appleby gives a delicately judged account of this graceful, elegant and blameless wife, whose spirit and resolution are strong enough to survive even the loss of both her children.
The meeting between reborn Hermione and her daughter Perdita is a beautifully tender and tear-stirring scene.
And Leontes’ incredulous realisation that he can make some reparation for his past sins expresses the redemptive power of hope in the most desperate of circumstances. Rather like the story of the prodigal son, some might feel that having made such a terrible mess of things, he doesn’t deserve his fresh chance, but then of course, which of us does?
The Winter’s Tale overflows with loss and longing, and if this adaptation doesn’t quite hit the heights of its ambition, it’s nevertheless brimming with imagination, with some top quality performances.
• The Shakespeare Sessions’ next show is a gender-inverted The Taming of the Shrew at the New Wimbledon Theatre – look out for it in May.