The Winter’s Tale

Cavendish Gate (295 Regent Street), 14 April – 16 May 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s a reason The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays. Halfway through it suffers a jarring tonal shift that makes it difficult to direct in a unified and consistent style.

For Theatre Delicatessen’s latest production in derelict office building Cavendish Gate, director Jessica Brewster has wholeheartedly embraced the schism. The stylistic split extends to the design, the staging and most other aspects of production.

The first half, in which king Leontes of Sicilia (Tom Daplyn) misinterprets a few chance remarks as evidence of his queen’s infidelity, is cramped into a gloomy corner of the space and populated by sombrely suited East End gangsters.

For the second, in which Leontes’ abandoned daughter (Sarah Llewellyn-Shore) is courted by the heir of Bohemia (Jonathan Laury), the space opens up into a flower-strewn square hung with colourful streamers, and peasant girls in bright dresses cavort with the audience.

It’s probably the only constructive way to deal with the play’s inherent split personality. Plus it makes for an spectacular end to the first half, where the walls concertina back to reveal designer Sophie Mosberger’s jazzy Latin marketplace.

The danger with this approach is that it simultaneously magnifies the play’s flaws and introduces new inconsistencies. Sicilia is London, the Sicilian court a crime family with matching black suits and sword tattoos; Bohemia, on the other hand, is less easily located in reality, with its Latin vibe and West Country accents.

Updating Shakespeare without touching the script is such common practice that nobody really thinks about it any more. Pick a period setting, costume the cast accordingly, perhaps coach them in the appropriate accents, but don’t worry about the anachronistic language, references and hierarchies (what is the East End equivalent of the Delphic Oracle, and how does it know what it knows?).

Of course, it’s usually done with the best of intentions – to refresh plays that are well known to the point of over-familiarity – and it can be done very well, but the majority of the time it results in a purely superficial update, where only the design locates the production in the director’s chosen setting.

More importantly, though, Theatre Delicatessen’s production doesn’t make the best use of the space. The company clearly love Cavendish Gate and consider its dingy bare brickwork and peeling paint one of their primary assets, yet we spend nearly two hours squashed into a tenth of the available area.

The Winter’s Tale is a problematic play, and a brave and risky choice for Theatre Delicatessen. The production falls victim to all the play’s known issues, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint what the company could have done better – other than to stage a different play.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Jessica Brewster (director), Sophie Mosberger (designer) and Florencia Cordeu (movement director)

Cast includes Florencia Cordeu (Paulina/Time), Tom Daplyn (Leontes/Old Shepherd), Jonathan Laury (Antigonus/Florizel), Sarah Llewellyn-Shore (Perdita), Laura Martin-Simpson (Hermione/First Gentleman), Henry Maynard (Polixenes/Officer) and Graham O’Mara (Camillo/Jailor/Third Gentleman)

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