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The Winter's Tale, The Courtyard, Hoxton, Londonthreestar

3.00

A new twist in a familiar tale

Phil Willmott is a phenomenon a truth that unfortunately sounds too alliterative to be true. It would take forever to frogmarch you through his back catalogue as writer, director and producer. But his inventiveness and his eye for... I was going to say niche marketing, but that's precisely not the right word...

Indeed, how would one describe the quietly brilliant concept of taking over the Scoop, the accidental open-air amphitheatre next to the (underrated) GLC building by Tower Bridge, and turning it into alfresco theatre that is free for anyone who happens to be passing by for certain weeks in the summer and at Christmas? It's a primary insight and Willmott has not got the recognition (or the money) for it that he deserves.

Willmott's output is uneven, which is part of its great charm. He's not self-protective. You don't go to a Willmott show (whether he has written it, produced it or performed in it) secure in the knowledge of an absolutely good time. But Willmott-watchers know that there is always something to bring away from his pieces and treasure. Or something that suddenly turns from mud to gold in the memory I remember some obscure Orton pieces that he directed, not very well to my mind, at the Drill Hall that have stayed with me and fructified in my life more than I could have imagined.

Is this all throat-clearing, a way of leading up to saying that I don't like his current Christmas production of The Winter's Tale (the best of the Shakespeare late plays) currently playing in the shiny new main house of the Courtyard Theatre, which has relocated from King's Cross to the Grade II-listed former Hoxton Library building? Not a bit of it. I loved the spirit of this show, while also having hefty doubts about its central concept.

The accent on this Winter's Tale, which is so fresh, vivid and fun, is it seems to me an attempt to ease the audience more smoothly over the break of 16 years that is the odd figurative feature of this absolute masterpiece. In the play proper, we begin 16 years before the action in the later acts. Leontes develops a rampaging jealously against his wife and his best friend, who he suddenly intuits are having an affair. Then 16 years later when the issue of this union (whom Leontes had violently wanted to kill to still his beating no-brain) is a young woman, nascent in her Oedipally desirable state, the play re-emerges outside its dream in the kingdom where the best friend and the unacknowledged, still-existing daughter are both precariously extant.

Willmott's perspective on this is both deeply imaginative and (for my money) perhaps too imaginative by half. The cast is wonderfully fresh (Willmott is great at seeing potential in performers on the brink and on the ledge) and a great part of the joy of sinking into the production is just recognising how well cast (within its means) it is.

But there's a catch, in that I think that the overriding concept is a slight mistake. To draw an analogy: take the great line from the Sonnets, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day", and rearrange it as "To a summer's day shall I thee compare". In that, you have both what is intriguing and to my mind less than wholly fortunate about this Winter's Tale, which starts directly after the point of the 16-year leap and presents the past as a wedding story. It doesn't quite work and yet is much more interesting than many dreary productions that play it by the letter. That's Willmott for you, all over.

By Paul Taylor

To 27 January (0870 163 0717)

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