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A tall tale

Shakespeare refreshed by a spot of gender-bending.

So, King Leontes of Sicilia unreasonably decides his best friend (or occasional lover, as this production of The Winter's Tale allowed), King Polixines of Bohemia, has been sleeping with Leontes' wife, Hermione. Maligned, the pregnant Hermione gives birth prematurely and, in the process, stages her death and leaves the kingdom. Leontes orders the sprog be exposed on a beach, after the Greek fashion. The servant who leaves the babe on the shore makes a hasty exit when he is pursued by a bear. In Act 2, what was turning out to be a tragedy suddenly becomes a comedy, and they all live happily ever after.

With this production, director Neal Barber maximised the anarchic potential in the second act, so we saw flamboyantly clothed characters grooving to the Mutton Birds' cover of Don't Fear the Reaper, and skipping and fingersnapping (it was Bohemia, after all) as they spoke. It made for exciting visual theatre, which probably helped viewers get past some difficulties with comprehension.

Such difficulties were partly a result of what might be called the seventhweek factor. Standard rehearsal time for most theatre productions is six weeks. I often wonder what would happen if all actors performing Shakespeare got a seventh week just to resolve any confusion about ye olde lines. Ask the director, ask Google, but don't just go on stage and expect the audience to know what you're saying if you don't.

That said, if a seventh week had been given this cast, several members would have been able to put their feet up during it. Chris Hopkins as Polixines, Ellie Swann as the lady Paulina, and Simon Ashby, as the lord Camillo certainly gave confident performances that enriched the script.

As the raging, jealous Leontes, Paul Ellicott adopted mannerisms similar to those of Antonie Dixon in his first trial. It was an interesting study, but Ellicott could have used a seventh week. He rendered the famous line "I have drunk and seen the spider" as if these were two unrelated activities that might take place in the course of one's day. As in: "I have been to the dairy, and been to the TAB."

Audience comprehension was also affected by Barber's intentional "queering" of The Winter's Tale. If your definition of "husband" did not stretch to include a woman in a shotsilk dress, for example, then you might have been a bit disoriented at times - but the director seemed to be challenging us to question why our definition did not stretch that far, and this was refreshing. Healthy, even.