The Winters Tale and Pericles in the Swan Theatre are the latest instalments in the RSCs Complete Works Festival in Stratford. There are themes running through both plays that make them well-suited for twinning and, in an exploration of loss, grief and rebirth, Dominic Cooke directs two crystal clear and wonderfully entertaining productions.
The plays are presented as promenade performances, using the same production team and acting ensemble. The direction is imaginative and insightful and there are no half-measures. When Shakespeare asks for a bear, we get a splendid, huge, lumbering creature and the downpour of rain that ends the first half of The Winter’s Tale is typical of the bold theatricality that runs through both productions. Cooke and designer Mike Britton have created an exciting space with several levels and an inspired picture box above the audience serving as a kind of inner stage.
The Winter’s Tale, opens at a New Year party, the actors ushering in the audience, plying them with cocktails and dancing to a live jazz band. There is a festive feel, the cast sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and all is jollity for a while, but the mood soon sours as the high spirits give way to an atmosphere of jealous suspicion. The slide from normality into paranoia and fear is brilliantly conveyed.
In a role that can be problematic, Anton Lesser is completely believable as Leontes, who gives in to violent irrationality on a mere whim and then descends rapidly into total madness. Even at the height of his insanity – when he demands that his new-born baby be burned to death – it is possible to have sympathy for him. He brings tremendous sensitivity to his characterisation, which makes his eventual return to his senses all the more affecting.
Lesser’s is just one of a number of marvellous performances. Linda Bassett is formidable as the arch-fixer Paulina and dominates every one of her scenes while Kate Fleetwood is excellent as the much put-upon Hermione. If the leads are outstanding, this is very much an ensemble piece from a hugely talented cast.
Ironically, when Time, here in the guise of a gardener, transports us 16 years on, it feels as though we are whirled back to a production from the 70s. This could easily fall flat but by and large it works, with a wild hippy garden party and a drug-selling Autolycus (Richard Katz), whom we first see in his underpants playing his guitar with Dylanesque harmonica slung around his neck.
The statue scene is one of the most touching in all Shakespeare and it is simply and movingly played as, with forgiveness and the healing power of time, those who have been lost are finally restored to one another.
Pericles is a slightly earlier work. Written around 1607-8, it pre-dates The Winter’s Tale by two or three years and the authorship is doubtful. In fact, Shakespeare may only have written the second half of it. One of the least-performed of the canon, it is altogether more sombre, set in a world of despots, pirates and sex slavery.
Unlike Leontes, whose insanity precipitates his own loss, Pericles is the victim of the tyranny of others. Using the same basic set, Dominic Cooke begins the play in an African dictatorship, complete with armed thugs and severed heads. Pericles’ painful travels through the heart of darkness bring him into contact with a wide range of peoples and manifestations of evil, and he is soon stripped of all that is dear to him. As with The Winter’s Tale, Cooke’s direction illuminates the text of what is an often obscure and difficult play with its clarity and inventiveness.
The laughs are a long time coming but, once the action moves to Pentapolis, there’s a hilarious tournament scene. A ragged bunch of suitors compete in a series of games (a pentathlon perhaps?) including a ludicrous swimming competition and noisy horse race.
Lucian Msamati gives a performance of great dignity as the unfortunate Pericles. His reunion with his long-lost daughter, heartaching in its pathos, is beautifully played by Msamati and Ony Uhiara as Marina.
In both plays, Cooke renders even the least believable scenes with great skill and his work here bodes well for his forthcoming tenure as Artistic Director of the Royal Court. There is so much to enjoy in these two productions and, with the Henry VI trilogy returning to the Courtyard Theatre in the New Year, the RSC is on a high making this winter a very good time to visit Stratford.