During the first of Dominic Cooke’s pair of promenade productions of late Shakespeare dramas, more and more of my notes came to consist of simple descriptions followed by ticks of approval. During the second, I took few notes of any kind, normally an indicator that I am thoroughly engrossed in the action.
Mike Britton’s design strips the seating from the ground floor of the Swan. A ramp curves up to one side of the gallery, a metal walkway hangs beside the other. Some feet above what is normally the upstage end, a playing area is canted several degrees from the horizontal. A couple of rostra are trucked in occasionally, and that’s it.
The groundlings of the audience mill about: sometimes part of the action, as at the New Year ball that here begins The Winter’s Tale or the sheep-shearing festival later on, sometimes getting out of the way sharpish, as when Antigonus famously exits pursued by a bear. (I do so like it when we get a decent bear: tick.)
I am belatedly coming round to the view that Anton Lesser is often just too actorly. But he gives his all at moments of fevered emotion, and as Leontes he has plenty of those: fevered jealousy about his wife Hermione, followed by fevered repentance.
Kate Fleetwood is an appealing Hermione (with a pair of cheekbones you could use to engrave marble). Richard Katz is inspired casting as the rogue Autolycus, and does a fine job though without ever going supersonic as one might have hoped. But the evening belongs to Linda Bassett as the plain-speaking, unshutuppable Paulina.
She combines a sharp tongue and a warm heart; in the closing “statue” scene, when she declares to Leontes (and us), “It is required you do awake your faith”, I heard the gorgeous hush of several hundred people doing just that.
Bassett does a turn as a twinset-wearing, cane-wielding Bawd (with Katz as her minion, Boult) in the other episodic drama of wives and children lost and found, Pericles. As in James Roose-Evans’ versions several years ago, Cooke envisions narrator Gower as a West African griot, but here all the city-states of the eastern Mediterranean are played as African. Almost the first person we see is the incestuous tyrant Antiochus, looking and sounding more than a little like Robert Mugabe.
As the orphaned/fostered/abducted/ prostituted/rescued princess Marina, Ony Uhiara largely avoids the tooth-rotting sweetness that often comes with the role. Lucian Msamati is an engaging Pericles through all his trials and tribulations, but we never forget here that Gower is steering things.
It can be a thankless role, often cut down to a “god of the gaps”, but Joseph Mydell renders him at once commanding and playful. Only a few headline titles from the RSC’s Complete Works marathon will transfer to London, and these are not scheduled among them. But to get the proper atmosphere, you need to see them on home ground anyway.
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