Theatre Delicatessen consider themselves to be the luckiest young theatre company in London. While others have been victims of the credit crunch they have benefited. Their venue, a disused office block just north of Oxford Circus, has so far been spared redevelopment. Quirky venues for theatre sometimes provide more problems than benefits, but director Jessica Brewster has found in this irregular, bare-bricked space her inspiration for this production.
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a play of two halves. First the audience finds itself in Sicilia where King Leontes is suddenly overcome by the conviction that his devoted wife Hermione is carrying on with his oldest friend Polixenes, King of neighbouring Bohemia. It's often difficult to believe the depth and strength of Leontes’ jealousy coming, as it seems to, out of nowhere. But it's important that we do, for it's his jealousy that kick-starts the whole chain of events that follow - his plan to murder his friend, imprison his wife and abandon his baby daughter to the elements. Brewster has decided to set her Sicilia in the gangster world of 1950s East End London where sudden changes of loyalties and irrational violence were commonplace. It’s a perfect choice for this venue and makes Leontes’ behaviour totally credible.
Where the East End setting works less well is with the women. It makes it harder for Hermione the gangster’s wife to convince us of her purity and virtue which she must if subsequent scenes are to make any sense. Her more outspoken friend Paulina is sometimes in danger of letting feistyness dominate modesty.
After a break of 16 years the action moves to Bohemia where Leontes’ abandoned daughter Perdita has grown to womanhood in the care of the shepherds who found her. Designer Sophie Mosberger has conceived Bohemia as a bright, colourful land filled with flowers, around which the audience sit to watch a sheep-shearing festival and Polixenes’ son Florizel pledge his love for Perdita. There is some over-long dancing, which given the length of the show could well have been cut. Fortunately this is enlivened by Ali Lane’s virtuoso performance as the rogue Autolycus who manages not only to fleece the shepherds but also to con members of the audience out of money too.
When we return to Sicilia for the final scenes of reconciliation the cast perform some wonderful business with huge white sheets to transform the space yet again into the new Sicilia - no longer a place of darkness and gloom but cleansed by the strength of Leontes’ repentance for his crimes. Leontes sees his beloved Hermione move and breathe once more and the magic of the old tale is complete.
This is a lively and innovative ensemble production which provides a fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s less performed comedies. At its core is an exceptionally sensitive and passionate portrayal of Leontes by Tom Daplyn. However be warned it's a long evening and the seating is basic in the extreme. Go and see it, but take your own cushion!