“It’s a well-known fact that hard-hearted kings often melt in the face of innocent babies”
The family-centric Unicorn Theatre invites us into a world of make-believe with this production of Ignace Cornelissen’s A Winter’s Tale. Four actors are putting on a playful performance of The Winter’s Tale but we see them slipping in and out of their roles as they squabble about who gets the best parts, take time out for sandwiches and get lost in the personas they are playing, whilst giving us a condensed version of Shakespeare’s tale of a king whose jealousies of his wife and best friend has far-reaching consequences. With crocodiles.
And playful is the word. The company of four relish the freedom they’re granted here: Ben Caplan’s King Freddy (Leontes) is an amusingly disgruntled figure who is the self-appointed leader of the group and Sam Swann’s King Tunde (Polixenes) an appealingly chilled-out presence whose easy friendship with Ginny Holder’s Queen Tamara (Hermione) provokes Freddy’s ire. Flemish Cornelissen doesn’t back away from the darkness of the story in Bohemia either, though he tempers the sadder moments with quick comic cuts – Holder bearing the brunt of the funniest one – always reminding the audience that this is just a tale we’re watching.
The actors switch between roles effortlessly as we move to Sicily – which gives Kae Alexander the later chance at a bigger part after she is sulkily relegated to the initial role of gamekeeper – and the clear use of props by director Purni Morell ensures a lack of confusion. There is a slight sense of unevenness from the writing though. Cornelissen mostly drops the device of slipping out of character for the latter half of the play, preferring to just run through the lighter vibe of Sicily, all bubble-machines, hula-hoops and random peg-involving party games. But he redeems himself with a powerfully unexpected ending which works beautifully in terms of this piece of writing and the ambience it has created, but also tear-jerkingly so in an entirely different way for those who know Shakespeare’s play.
This performance was one of the Unicorn’s relaxed performances, for those who benefit from a more relaxed atmosphere with regards to making noise, a vitally important innovation from a theatre that is determined to ensure its provision is accessible to the widest range of children possible. There was something fascinating in witnessing the power of theatre in this way, seeing what was proving most effective in grabbing and keeping their attention and the actors – Swann in particular – should be commended for their sensitivity in incorporating these reactions into the show.
James Button’s design makes a virtue out of simplicity, achieving much with just a silken sheet which is atmospherically lit in uncomplicated colours by David W Kidd and though it is aimed at 7-10 year olds, it has an openness and warmth that merits the removal of the upper age limit. And though it takes inspiration from, and the occasional liberty with, Shakespeare, there’s also something touchingly persuasive here about the nature of playing with others.