Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 21 September, 2006

In the closing minutes of Kneehigh's version of this late Shakespearean drama, I was watching the improbable sequence of happy reunions, appreciating the company's irreverent modernisation of the play but feeling little sense of emotional engagement. Co-writer/director Emma Rice's programme notes describe it as a fairy tale, and rightly so: it has many of the motifs and tropes common to folk tales from many lands. But the magic was missing. And then, suddenly, there it was, so simple that it was brilliant. The original business about a prophecy and a soothsayer, intended to underline how metaphysical order had been restored but virtually meaningless to a modern audience, was replaced by giving the reunited young people pictures of themselves as children, with departed loved ones. Suddenly we had a concrete emblem of the meaning of lineage and of connection with the vanished past, a reminder that the wonder of such tales is childlike and a link with the otherwise dubiously cutesy programme pics of the cast of eight. At once my gut contracted as if punched and my heart sang.

This production is a lively paraphrase of Shakespeare's play, but it is not that play. At a guess, fewer than 100 lines in total of the original survive verbatim, but pretty much all the events do. Rice and Carl Grose's adaptation uses forthright phrasing; the production is full of the inventive cheek we have come to associate with Kneehigh. At times characters' conduct is graphic and distasteful, as when deceitful Iachimo explores the body of the sleeping Imogen; but any portrayal of this episode needs to find a direct and powerful way to preserve its transgressive impact. One largely takes Hayley Carmichael's virtuosic portrayals of innocence for granted now, and her Imogen is well up to scratch. There is even a discreet theatrical in-joke: the role of Caesar is played by a series of life-size photographs and tape recordings of Marcello Magni, who used to be ubiquitous in productions of this kind and now manages to be present even when physically he is in Paris with Peter Brook. After Alastair Macaulay's report on this page in January that he abandoned the company's Nights At The Circus at the interval, I am happy to testify that that dip in Kneehigh quality seems to have been only temporary.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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