Barbican – Silk Street Theatre
This production was by Cheek by Jowl, a company known for the strength of their ensemble casts*, their international tours (and producing plays in a number of languages) and for their production of The Winter’s Tale which has been on in St Petersburg for 20 years. This is not that production.
Firstly a word about the venue – the Silk Street Theatre is in one of those odd nuggets where bits of the Barbican bleed into each other, and it seems to be more part of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama than a tourist destination. As we waited to go in there was the chance to peruse the honour boards, and belatedly congratulate alumni including Stephen Campbell Moore, Michelle Dockery and Kurt Egyiawan on their medal wins. The theatre itself gave me instant flashbacks to my own school theatre** – a very plain studio, with some of the most uncomfortable seats my backside has endured. It’s also in one of those bits of the Barbican where you can quite easily lose yourself – I went out (as I thought) the way I came in, but ended up in the Martini Bar rather than by the exit…
It’s taking me a little while to get to the point which, in a funny coincidence, is also how I felt this production started. The whole thing had a slight air of staginess, which was definitely apparent in the wordless opening – with a figure (who later turns out to be Time) sitting back-to-the-audience on a bench in the middle of the stage. Once the action started, though, it didn’t stop – the first scenes set out a picture of an extraordinarily energetic Leontes (played by Orlando James) who stopped running about the stage (and even up the walls – literally) only long enough to tell us of his irrational jealousy. Moving Hermione and Polixenes like puppets into obscene positions, it was clear his jealousy was all in his head, but there seemed to be a clear undertone that he and Polixenes had been lovers – making perhaps some sense as to why the idea might have taken root (if he has slept with both them it might be a smaller step to believe they have slept with each other).
Another plausible explanation showed in the clear like-father-like-son interactions with Mamillius, whose ungovernable rages, soothable only by his mother, showed a passion and selfish love which could easily have come from his father. Indeed, for all the horror of his actions, James’s Leontes was so overwhelmed by the strength of his emotions that you could almost feel sorry for him even as he sent his wife to die and banished the baby Perdita. I thought the scene where Leontes rejects the Oracle’s word was particularly well handled – you saw first his utter joy that Hermione had been found innocent, a touching reconciliation between the pair, and then a rejection of the final line (the prophesied death of Mamillius) so complete that it swept away what had come before. Of course, it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy rather than a warning – in declaring Hermione to be false, he brings about that death he fears so much.
The production did not shy away the complexities of a problem play – Autolycus, the fourth-wall breaking clown, referred repeatedly to the “funny bits” and the “serious bits” and while the funny bits were funny (the shopping list scene in particular stood out) the serious bits contained a lot of flat-out violence: Leontes assaulting the pregnant Hermione so severely as to bring on early labour; play-fighting with Mamillius which turned to actual blows; Dorcas and Mopsa cat-fighting; Polixenes grabbing Perdita in a very intimate area, Autolycus beating up the young shepherd. The production was full-on, pedal firmly to the metal.
The only respite from the madness, really, was Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione – the calm centre of the Sicilian court. She managed to combine both love and warmth with a quiet intensity and sense of (soft) power. She alone could soothe her son and her husband/king. She alone could deliver the quietly compelling protestation of her innocence in the courtroom (a scene, incidentally, which also – like Hamlet and Measure for Measure – used video cameras on live feedback to project the action behind the actors. So it seems that’s a thing now). She alone could unite the action of the play when her statue comes to life. Eleanor McLoughlin played Perdita as cast from the same mould, but too young to have quite the same impact on those around her, and with a hint of her father’s towering passion. Joy Richardson’s Paulina was a wonderfully firm, stern old woman – great at chiding and shaming, but powerless to force Leontes to change his mind.
If this review seems overly focused on the first half, that’s because it definitely made the stronger impression. But the second half had plenty to chew on too – Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus was an absolutely joy, with his nods to the audience, amd the cheeky audacity with which he took the script out of Shakespeare’s hands. I’m pretty sure the original version didn’t have a scene based on the Jerry Springer show; nor did it have someone being asked “Didst thou pack thy fardel thineself?” And yet you couldn’t help but be charmed by the roguery.***
The second half also had the advantage of Sam Woolf’s sweet Florizel. The interaction between him and Edward Sayer’s Polixenes (more buttoned-up than Leontes, but no less tyrannical) showed how Mamillius might have fared had he survived, and made it abundantly clear why he had fled to be a shepherd.
It was effectively a modern dress production, making no real bold statement as to time and place (letting the action speak for itself rather than trying to impose any additional meaning onto it). All of this action played out against a wonderfully simple set – a white wooden bench, and a white wooden box – which was very cunningly designed to be palace, ship or barn and offered the only space for cast members to go “offstage” or to change clothes as there were no wings nor any other scenery. Which must make life easier for touring and had me, by the end, waiting to see what new rabbit could be pulled from the hat. It also gave much more weight to the lighting and sound – the latter, particularly, bringing out the oppressive feel of the whole production very well.
Overall, I’m not entirely certain the production pulled off everything it was aiming for. Indeed, I’m not entirely certain what it was aiming for. The oppression, partially relieved by Hermione’s resurrection, returns when Mamillius reappears as a ghost and must leave again**** – this ending is bittersweet at best. But there was plenty to chew on and plenty to savour. And the great thing about this production is that you don’t have to take my word for any of this – it will be live-streamed on 19th April and available on BBC iPlayer from 23rd April. More details here.
* Especially given they used to include Adrian Lester, Tom Hollander and Tom Hiddleston – although probably not at the same time.
** And I know the fact I went to a school with its own theatre is giving you all a certain impression of me…
*** Right up until the assault on the young shepherd, that is…
**** And why does no-one remember poor dead Antigonus?