The Winter's Tale / Pericles, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Friday 17 November 2006
The rubric of the Royal Court has always been to produce new plays as if they were classics and classic plays as if they were new. Clearly, they have chosen well for the regime change that will happen next January. Artistic director Dominic Cooke turns that philosophy into wondrous theatre in these paired, artfully cross-cast and promenade productions for the RSC.
One of the pleasures of promenading is not just closeness to the action but the roving proximity it affords with your fellow spectators. I've never felt so close before to people going through extremes of emotion - punters whose faces were wet with tears, say, at the moving statue-brought-back-to-life scene in The Winter's Tale.
At the start, you are welcomed to a glitzy New Year's Eve party. (The productions progress from the McCarthyite Fifties - a revealing point of reference for the chilling show-trial of Hermione in The Winter's Tale - to the present day by the end of the Africa-based Pericles.)You hobnob with the cast, and even the critics were invited to dance. A waiter shimmered up to us with champagne, before later going on to deliver a side-splittingly funny portrayal of the con man Autolycus.
Shakespearean romance works on the pattern of a tragic error that sunders a family and causes death, followed by a second chance brought about after a gap of time by the second generation. It's a pattern of recurrence that brings partial redemption. Cooke has deep understanding of this and uses the cross-casting to show not only how it works within an individual play but how it operates from one play to another. For example, it's the first time that I've ever seen a director take literally the idea that the jealous Leontes (excellently tormented Anton Lesser) and Polixenes (fine Nigel Cooke), the friend he deludedly believes has cuckolded him, were "twinned lambs" as children, giving them a strong resemblance, so that it looks as though either could be the father of Leontes' little boy.
The performances of the evening come from the superb Linda Bassett, who plays the handmaiden of resurrection in both plays - a rasta-braided New Age healer in Pericles and a doughty be-furred Fifties lady who in The Winter's Tale tells the statue that "'Tis time" to come alive again. Sublime.
In rep to 6 Jan (08706 091 110; www.rsc.org.uk)
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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