A brightly-lit Christmas tree initially stands out against a plain pale set, split across two levels, at the opening of the play, reflecting the celebratory mood that prevails between Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and his hosts, Leontes and Hermione, King and Queen of Sicilia. In Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, suspicion and loss, however, the light, literally and figuratively, soon disappears, to be replaced by private grief, belated realisation and enlightened reconciliation.
The play is a challenging one: it sits neither within the category of tragedy nor that of comedy; and it covers a span of sixteen years, requiring some of the central characters to age accordingly. As Leontes, Samuel Richardson conveys a range of moods quite effectively, notably the king’s years of remorse, although a greater range of vocal tone would have further enhanced a strong central performance. He dominates the first half of the play with confidence and assurance amid some intensely sombre and self-destructive scenes. The exchanges between Leontes and his friend, then supposed cuckolder, Polixenes suitably reflect the shifts in a relationship that is at the heart of the play’s conflict. As Polixenes, Leon Newman has the easier task of the two, his character remaining sympathetic throughout, but he meets its particular challenges confidently, as charmed then bewildered guest and later as genial then enraged ruler.
The third character within the alleged triangle at the heart of the play is Leontes’ wife, Hermione. Eve Barclay clearly relishes every moment of what is arguably the most challenging but thereby also the most rewarding role within the play; from glittering and adored hostess, through innocent object of her husband’s accusations, new mother deprived of her second and then her first child, to her final appearance (I’m trying to avoid a spoiler for those who don’t know), the role offers any actress the opportunity to action a breadth of moods and emotions. Eve Barclay responds well to the challenge, not least in her varied physicality and clarity of diction. While it could be argued that she is presented in a way that defies the passing of the years, that is implicit within the writing and in the purpose of her final appearance. Michaela Farrell’s Paulina is another notable characterisation. She commands attention whenever on stage and seems at ease with the language and the specific demands of the role, one that is central to key elements of the plot.
The production has been staged so that the interval falls where it naturally belongs, the second half transporting us in time and place: 16 years forward and to a Bohemia suitably contrasting with the stiff formality of Sicilia. Director Fiona Ross has given the whole production a post-World War 2 feeling, the austerity of Auden’s ‘age of anxiety’ giving way to that of ‘flower power’; the music, décor and costume sets the second half in motion, while the audience is still in the theatre bar, leading us – physically as well as dramatically – into a world whose carefree pastoral idyll, as it seems at least, highlights the contrast with the first half, aided by simple but effective changes in staging. This is also reflected in the other, less constrained figures within the play. A taste of this is given at the end of the first half with the comic double-act of the Shepherd, an enormously enjoyable and unforced performance from AJ Chambers, and his Clown son, a fractionally more contrived-feeling but nonetheless effective Jack Heath. Set alongside these is Meg Brayne’s Autolycus, the tinker-cum-pickpocket here rendered as a guitar-toting country-and-western-singing ne’er-do-well, trickster and, critically, fixer. All three make the most of the opportunities to add comic relief to a mixture symptomatic of Shakespeare’s later plays.
Adding the final key ingredient to this concoction, that of young, innocent but somewhat guileful love, are ‘peasant girl’ Perdita and her high-born, escape-seeking Florizel. In a play in which what people seem to be and what they actually are is a recurrent motif, both knowingly or unknowingly continue the theme, their scenes together capturing the mood of lightness, albeit overshadowed by social divisions and expectations, essential if the play is to be experienced in its full tonal diversity. Both Jenna Holloway and Jordan Holczimmer-Rees clearly revel in the opportunities – slightly narrower and less subtle than for others – offered by their roles. It would be remiss of me not to add a note of praise to young Felix Edwards as Mamillius (I’m pretty sure it was him from the two sharing the role). While softer-spoken, so not always as audible as the others, he handled his role with quiet assurance, all the more important in this production given the director’s thoughtful additional use of the older child of his royal parents as a reminder of what is sacrificed when adults, especially those in power, fall prey to destructive impulses.
At times, accents, speed of delivery or the mere challenges of Shakespeare’s text lead to a loss of clarity in the delivery of lines but, for the most part, the cast honour and celebrate the writing, making for a very enjoyable production overall. In this they are supported, as has been the case in all of the AUB productions that I have been fortunate enough to see during this autumn-winter ‘season’ from graduating students, by the excellence of the sets, wardrobe and technical design provided by their fellow students on related degree courses. A particularly enjoyable part of going to see the productions has, indeed, been the displays of designs within the bar area, all adding to some extremely rewarding visits. I’m torn since I invariably come away very satisfied after seeing them but perhaps need AUB to produce something that falls short for me in order to persuade any readers that I am not their ‘tame’ reviewer: I’m not, of course, but they do keep coming up with immensely enjoyable and admirable productions – and long may that continue. This one concludes with performances at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday 7 December. Go if you can – and if, given how good a house there was on Friday, there are still tickets available.