The Winter's Tale * * * * *
Pericles * * *
at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Review by Terry Grimley
Epic days in the theatre are always a welcome challenge for the Shakespeare enthusiast, but standing for six hours through a double bill of his late plays is probably a bit too much to recommend.
So my advice if you are going to see these promenade productions by Dominic Cooke and his RSC company is to catch them, if possible, on different days. Or maybe sit one of them out, since seats are available in the galleries.
And if you are only going to see one, make it The Winter's Tale, not only because it's the better play but because it's the one in which the promenade format works better.
The idea isn't new, but I don't recall having had quite the sense of being inside a Shakespeare play which is on offer here.
On arriving, promenading audience members are welcomed to a party at Leontes's court with dancing to a cheesy danceband (we are starting in the early 1950s, so that the 16-year gap between the two halves of the play delivers us to the late 1960s), while later they are forced to scatter at Antigonus's famous exit pursued by a bear and are offered sausage rolls at the Bohemian sheep-shearing festivities. Throughout, lines are apt to be delivered by actors standing at your elbow.
Being so close is quite an experience when you have performances as terrific as Anton Lesser's steely-edged Leontes, whose sudden and insane delusion that he has been betrayed by his wife and oldest friend drives the first half of the play.
The open ground level is linked by a spiral ramp to an upper gallery and scenes are acted out above, below and in-between, with staging rolled out for set-pieces like the trial scene and the unveiling of Hermione's statue.
Lesser, who dons age along with a pair of glasses in Part 2, gives one of the production's outstanding performances. Joseph Mydell, wisdom and dignity personified as the alienated faithful servant Camillo, provides another. He complements this with his commanding presence as the narrator-poet John Gower, recast as a staff-carrying African seer, in Pericles.
Richard Moore, once of Emmerdale, adds flat-capped rustic comedy as the Old Shepherd – you can almost smell the grease on that tweed jacket – and Richard Katz's Autolycus reflects the counter culture's snapping up of unconsidered trifles, appearing first toting a guitar and Dylan-style harmonica harness.
With a terrific sense of urgency and involvement, this seems like the shortest Winter's Tale I have seen, and it's pretty much a complete success.
Another of its strengths is Linda Bassett's tough-as-boots Paulina, to which she adds two more colourful but contrasted performances in Pericles: the New Age healer Cerimon (usually a male character) and the hard-bitten Bawd in the tragicomic brothel scene.
Pericles takes us to a world of dysfunctional modern African states. Much of its first hour is now believed to be more likely the work of one George Wilkins than Shakespeare, and we are distracted from the thinness of the text by some frantic activity, including the comical tournament among rivals for the hand of the princess Thaisa.
Pericles' triumph in this competition seems surprising since the stocky Lucian Msamati seems cast against type in the title role, though he does strike a regal figure in his aged, bearded incarnation at the end of the play.
The scene of his reunion with his long-lost daughter Marina – a beautiful performance by Ony Uhiara – is one of the most effective. For some reason the standing audience is asked to sit for it.
But though Pericles shares some of the big themes of the more successful late plays it comes across here as a broken-backed, fragmentary affair, though fresh and colourful in its African costume.
Running times: The Winter's Tale Three hours; Pericles Two hours, 50 minutes. In repertory until January 6.