The TheatreguideLondon Review
Nicholas Hytner's new production of Shakespeare's late romance is absolutely superb for three-quarters of its length, so very fine that one is willing to forgive a dreadful drop in quality in the middle.
The play itself breaks into three barely-related sections. King Leontes is suddenly overwhelmed by jealousy, certain on no evidence that his queen is unfaithful with his best friend, a neighbouring king. He prosecutes her, orders her newborn daughter to be sent to her death, and then is overwhelmed with remorse when the queen, now dead as well, is proven innocent. Sixteen years later the daughter, raised by shepherds, meets the son of that neighbouring king, and the couple help bring about the reunion of the fathers and the revelation that the wronged queen is still alive.
Hytner's production startles you even before it begins, as Ashley Martin-Davis's set puts us in an elegant modern penthouse, and the setting anchors the play in a solid contemporary realism. The first challenge facing any production is to make Leontes' instantaneous jealousy believable, and Alex Jennings makes it work better than any other Leontes I've seen.
Jennings gives a subtle and
textured performance, something of a surprise from this actor who often
works in broad strokes. His king might at first be a captain of industry,
doing business with one ear while entertaining at an elegant party. What
he thinks he sees when not really paying close attention - a hint of intimacy
between his wife and friend - knocks him for a loop, in a totally believable
Jennings' double revelation is to fight the oncoming of jealousy rather than rush into it, and to play the scene for pain rather than anger. As a result, we both recognize and sympathize - the man's whole world has been shaken by this seeming loss, and he is the victim of his own error rather than the monster too many actors find.
The performances around him are equally layered and real. Claire Skinner turns the queen from a casually elegant hostess to a woman with the power of absolute dignity when wronged. while Deborah Findlay plays Paulina, the queen's chief defender and later guardian of the king's repentance, as Elaine Stritch, the hard-edged society matron with a surprising core of humanity.
And then the play loses its way for 40 minutes or so. The Bohemia scenes, involving the romance of the young couple, are set in a hippie encampment at a rock festival. Autolycus, Shakespeare's petty thief, is now a Dylanesque folk singer and part-time drug dealer who pauses the action for a rap song sampling Shakespeare's greatest hits, and all the charm Phil Daniels brings to the role can't save this section from sinking into frantic but lifeless dreariness.
The best that can be said of the Bohemia section is that it is very, very silly but mercifully short. The worst is that the actors playing the young couple (I'll not name them) are severely personality-challenged, so that the sense this section is supposed to give of young love and a new generation bringing renewal to their parents' world simply isn't there.
What is, when we get back to Leontes' court for the final act, is a return to the very high standards of the opening acts, as Alex Jennings shows us the modulated pain of a man who has lived intimately with sorrow for so many years that it is almost comfortable, and he and Findlay capture something that I've too rarely seen actors realize - that the long shared grief of Leontes and Paulina is one of the strongest emotional bonds of the play.
That Nicholar Hytner knows
this is evident in the staging and body language he guides his actors
to in the final scene. Watch carefully as, without altering a word of
Shakespeare, he makes it perfectly clear (and absolutely believable) which
relationships will survive this adventure and which won't.
It is one of those great moments of rediscovery that make going back to Shakespeare's plays again and again worthwhile, and it will enable you to leave the theatre with charitable forgiveness for that silly lapse in the middle.
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