David Farr has found a nice balance between comedy, drama and pathos here, in this, one of Shakespeare’s oddest plays. Dead children, courtiers being eaten by bears, the insane jealousy of the king and a dead queen may not be the most obvious subjects for a comedy, but the happy ending ensures that this stays the right side of happy-ever-after, despite the unpleasant happenings of the first half. As the paranoid Leontes, Greg Hicks is tremendous: a small man, bent by jealous delusions and his over-active imagination, he is nonetheless tyrannical and immoveable in his passions. He is, however, never a match for Noma Dumezweni’s statuesque and calm Paulina. It is clear who wears the trousers at court, even though she is outnumbered 10-1 by men. Kelly Hunter’s queen Hermione avoids hysteria in the face of extreme provocation, and her quiet dignity gives the character an air of martyrdom that she wears lightly.
The court itself is well-constructed, with Jon Bausor’s brilliant, book-lined set managing to be both claustrophobic and too spacious. Outside the court, in the wilds of Bohemia, the set works less well: the book motif is continued for reasons I cannot fathom, to the point of leafing the wobbly trees with pages. Samantha Young is a charming Perdita, charting the progress from shepherdess to princess with admirable aplomb. Her prince, Florizel (Tunji Kasim), grows from a cocky young man into an heir that any king would be proud to have.
This production relies a little too heavily on the contrasts between the yokels and the courtiers for its comedy, concentrating more on the young shepherd’s (Gruffudd Glyn) accent than the delicate relationships between father and son, father and adopted daughter, and the class divides that prevent James Gales’s old shepherd being heard by the court. I was at a loss to explain to my French companion why “the English” find giant phalluses so funny – and why the country-folk felt the need to dance around in masks waving them about. That aside, the production had plenty of poignant moments, too, notably the final scene where family is reconciled and Hermione is reunited with her penitant husband. The fairy-tale happy ending is coloured by the death of the young prince early in the play, but remains redemptive enough to leave the audience feeling buoyant.
As ever, though, the bear was the star of the show.