The Winter's Tale, Barbican, London, review: Leontes is very disturbingly communicated by the excellent Orlando James

The Cheek by Jowl production is directed by Declan Donnellan, who was recently awarded the Golden Lion of Venice for his ability to bring classic works to life for a contemporary audience

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The Independent Culture

Declan Donnellan first directed this late Shakespearean romance in the mid 1990s in a Russian translation on international tour with the permanent company of the excellent Maly Theatre of St Petersburg.

The Winter's Tale is a play in which, famously, there is 16-year gap between the murderous madness of the first three acts (in which Leontes succumbs to the insane delusion that his heavily pregnant wife is having an affair with his childhood friend Polixenes, who is just coming to the end of a long visit) and the modulation into comedy and wonder in the last two with the sheep-shearing feast, the partial healing brought about by the emergence of the younger generation and the complex currents in the redemptive statue scene.  

So time was very much of the essence of Donnellan's terrific initial crack at the play. A single chime from a clock had the ability to freeze-frame and throughout, echo and a kind of pictorial ensured that we appreciate how much each successive moment holds past, present and in fragile suspension.

Donellan comes back to the piece with English actors under the auspices of Cheek By Jowl, the company he founded with designer Nick Ormerod. A forensic analysis of the origins of the king's lunacy and of its horrifying ripple effect is conducted with a ferocious physicality here.

The production takes its cue from the writings of John Bowlby about separation anxiety in its visceral depiction of a family who is evidently already dysfunctional because of Leontes' psychological hang-ups long before the devastating moment when he takes a running kick at the stomach of his heavily pregnant wife, Hermione and she anoints the forehead of her little boy with the blood. The innocent woman's show trial is presented in film and, as she shows you the fine detail of the queen's mix of agonised concern for her husband and her own beleaguered self-respect, Natalie Radmall-Quirke puts in a great movie performance.

The production wittily presents Bohemia as a Synge-like version of Ireland – its buoyancy brogue shading at moments into self-sentimentalising blarney to just the right degree. But I preferred the truly troubling first half to the periodic excesses of the second – such as the funny but rather obvious Jerry Springer/Jeremy Kyle-style show that Ryan Donaldson's strapping tease of an Autolycus spring  on the proceedings.

As the little son, Tom Cawte responds by falling to the floor in violently protesting fits at the thought of being distanced from his mother by a new baby and left at the tender mercies of a father who's off his face with paranoia.  It makes his posthumous return in the statue scene when he lays a hand of benediction all the more moving. Recommended.

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