The Winter’s Tale (Dorfman, National Theatre)

The Winter’s Tale (Dorfman, National Theatre, until February 21st)

Young people know how to be hopeful and happy even when adults are acting childishly around them. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s certainly one of the themes explored in an enjoyable one hour version of The Winter’s Tale at the National Theatre.

Kids aren’t bothered that it’s one of Shakespeare’s problem plays – all they want is a good story, well-told, and this is what this commendable stripped down version for young audiences and families delivers. A great deal of the original poetry and language is there, so it is down to the performers for bringing it so easily to life and allowing it to be comprehensible.

In this version dramaturg Justin Audibert starts at the end of the tale and uses Perdita (a likeable Aisha Toussaint) as narrator, inviting the audience to unlock the power of their imagination and turn back the clock 16 years to the time when her story began.

She is the lost girl, saved from the disintegrating Sicilian court of her father, King Leontes, who – unjustifiably jealous of his wife’s friendship with his childhood friend – bitterly destroys his kingdom and tears apart his family. This might be more Games of Thrones or Jeremy Kyle but the children get the themes of foolishness, jealousy, young love, repentance and redemption pretty easily.

An energetic cast play out the story with plenty of interaction with the excited young audience. They are helped by the puppet presence of Gina, the baaaaaaad sheep (that and child Mamillius splendid creations by Sam Wyer), and perhaps their laughter is the best response to the folly of the adults’ more serious bad behaviour.

For this is, of course, a dark drama, but director Ruth Mary Johnson manages unashamedly to combine the storybook setting with all too real hard emotions; there is a palpable sense of shock when a heartbroken Mamillius dies after witnessing his father’s rage against his mother.

It is particularly interesting that the original play’s lighter 4th and 5th acts set in the pastoral serenity of Bohemia are cut back so much and that great comic creation Autolycus disappears entirely, but this is never to the detriment of what this version is trying to do. The simple pleasures of life are more than adequately represented by the old shepherd and his son, a lively and colourful maypole dance and prince Florizel’s romantic nature (Stanton Wright making him comically oblivious to everything apart from his love for Perdita).

Children lured by the promise of the play’s infamous pursuing bear might be disappointed by just hearing a loud roar, but they will definitely warm to Jonathan Girling’s magical music and songs, Paul Knott’s lighting (encouraging the audience to understand the light and dark moments of the action and emotion) and Mike Winship’s sound design.

The whole cast works admirably as an ensemble, each eager in their own way to make the audience experience the story to its fullest effect. Joseph Adelakun’s Leontes is a king who too easily falls into a jealous rage, but who understands the power of forgiveness – the final moments when Hermione’s “statue” comes to life must be one of the finest versions around Wreh-Asha Walton (Hermione), Terique Jarrett (Polixenes), Ebony Feare (Camilla), Tom Giles (Antigonus/Old Shepherd) and Christina Modestou (Paulina) all use every aspect of the actor’s art to ensure the story is told powerfully but approachably.

This lost and found tale is an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for young people and it is also visiting schools after its run at the Dorfman, which should leave plenty of kids with a desire to see more.

And even though it is aimed at the younger audiences, it is a fair bet that older generations of theatregoers will be captivated by the magic as well.

David Guest

Image: Ellie Kurtzz

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub