When the infant Perdita is deposited on the wild beach of Bohemia (Soutra Gilmour's simple but inspired design simply coats the entire stage of Southwark Playhouse with an inch or so of salt), the babe is observed by the ghost of her mother Hermione. Think about that for a moment: surely the play is well enough known for us to realise almost immediately that, although King Leontes believes that his unfounded jealousy has hounded his poor wife to her grave, she is in fact simply in hiding with the trusty Paulina for the next sixteen years, playing statues. Perdita, in other words, is being watched over by the shade of a woman still living. The technical term for such a device is "cheating".
It is almost the only sticky moment in Erica Whyman's otherwise straightforward and clear production (apart from a brief passage a few scenes later where, because characters have been conflated in order to cut the cast to nine, an elderly shepherd indulges in a tangential episode of dirty-old-man-ism with one of the teenaged Perdita's friends). Whyman, staging the play in the round, astutely opts where possible for a naturalistic style; occasionally this means that lines whizz past before we can unravel the meaning from the poetry, most frequently during the early scenes before Fraser James's Leontes hits his stride, when he gives high-speed muttered vent to his jealous paranoia.
By and large, however, meaning and emotion ring out uncluttered in the Playhouse's small space. Victoria Finney's Hermione modulates from warm jokiness in the first scenes to wronged uprightness when Leontes formally accuses her of adultery. Lucy Briers makes an austere but still sympathetic Paulina, championing Hermione and even, in the latter scenes, acting as a confidant for the aged and repentant Leontes. (Whyman's multi-racial company is cast along not quite colour-blind lines, so that it is visibly plain to the audience that Leontes has no grounds for suspecting that either of his children may in fact have been fathered by his friend Polixenes.)
In the pastoral scenes, J.D. Kelleher makes an endearing scoundrel of Auotlycus, cozening the rustics out of their gold and singing cheery come-all-yous as he does so. Antony Hickling and Grace Mattaka as Florizel and Perdita are a plausibly joyous couple, and all temptations to make a meal of the emotional complexities in the final statue-scene are wisely avoided. Under Whyman as under her predecessor Mehmet Ergen, the Southwark Playhouse continues to be one of the few London venues of its size to operate a policy which is both coherent and artistcally successful.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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