Waiting outside the theatre in Regent’s Park, I overheard a small group of boys discussing the vexatious fallout from an argument between two friends. Proof, if proof were needed, that even the youngest of audiences are familiar with the torments of jealousy and divided loyalties that are key to The Winter’s Tale. Adultery, possible infanticide and sexual infidelity may be harder to explain to the target audience of this production, and the plot is knotty, but there’s much in this late, great Shakespeare play for children to enjoy. And Ria Parry’s staging, described as Shakespeare “re-imagined for everyone aged six and over”, sticks with much of the original dialogue, but edits the drama to less than two hours’ playing time and accentuates its playfulness. The result is a breezy, inventive, highly enjoyable account of the play, very well suited to this space. It produces a carnival atmosphere on a sunny afternoon, but still manages to turn the mood around to deliver the moving ending.
The cast of six offer a quick prologue explaining how they will play several parts (a quick change of costume) and outlining the plot. We learn how Leontes’ (Guy Burgess) sudden fit of irrational jealousy makes him split from his lifelong friend Polixenes (Dean Nolan) and turn savagely on his wife Hermione (Sirine Saba) and baby daughter Perdita. Still, the first half of the play is pretty dense (in the Ladies at half-time, a group of girls were grappling with the basics: “So they had, like, a really bad break-up?”), and this is certainly not the subtlest production you will see. Motives hard to fathom in the original become even more opaque here.
But the staging really takes off in sunny Bohemia, where the lost babe Perdita (Kezrena James) grows up with a shepherd family, innocent of her royal origins. The sheep-shearing festival is very jolly, involving an absurd dance-off between characters and getting small audience members up on stage to help with the shearing (probably a first for most London children). It’s rough and ready in places, but this staging makes a fine introduction to Shakespeare and offers too a celebration of the simple inventiveness of theatre. The cast are engaging, perform with clarity and vivacity, and carry off the deeply touching reconciliation scene at the end particularly well.