The perennial question of this “problem play” is whether it is a late comic-romance or a serious drama that only averts tragedy by tacking on a happy ending. Productions often choose to commit to lightness or darkness, but director Blanche McIntyre finds a third way by underlining the play’s clashing parts rather than obviating them, and showing the joins at the seams.
Much of this is done through costume: the first three acts show the Sicilian court in period dress as King Leontes spirals into jealousy and accuses his wife, Hermione, of “bed-swerving” with his best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Later acts take us to Bohemia and a contemporary world of smart suits, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and snakeskin boots. When a party of Bohemians arrive in Sicilia in the final act, it seems as if one play – of romances and weddings – has gatecrashed another of tragic flaws and funerals. It is a clever way of offering a moral resolution in which a past era of “unreason” in Sicilia is trumped by the order and reason of modern-day Bohemia.
Props are minimal and actors gather in formations that appear like painterly tableaux. The entire cast give striking performances, and the only off-key moment is the famed stage instruction (“Exit, pursued by a bear”), presented as a kitschy banner of a bear unfurled on stage.
McIntyre, fresh from the acclaim of The Writer, builds on the play’s conspiratorial undercurrents. Will Keen’s jittery Leontes is a neurotic schemer, seeing conspiracies where there are none and trembling through much of his performance. Hermione, played by Priyanga Burford, uses reason to argue against him and bears a quietly imperial authority.
Sirine Saba, as Hermione’s friend Paulina, is a compelling and confident presence, defending her dead mistress with righteous anger. When Hermione’s statue is unveiled and miraculously comes back to life, her quivering invites us to consider the possibility that Hermione might have been in hiding all along and that her apparent resurrection is a ploy to fool Leontes.
It is all subtly, knowingly, dissonant, down to the climactic Elizabethan jig combined with the stagy high kicks of a West End musical. This play is impervious to the rules of dramatic convention, McIntyre seems to say. So why not celebrate its problems rather than paste over them?