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The dark side of romance

Shakespeare's tale of jealousy and forgiveness returns in a new touring production. Heather Neill reports

The Winter's Tale Compass Theatre Company

Director Neil Sissons is well aware of the fairy-tale nature of The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's late Romances. Acknowledging this has helped him solve a number of problems, one of which is the melding together of the disparate elements that make up the piece.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, becomes passionately and irrationally jealous of his virtuous wife Hermione, within a matter of seconds, suspecting her relationship with his old friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

The action moves to Bohemia where Hermione's baby Perdita is taken and saved by shepherds from the death sentence ordered by Leontes. Time appears as a character, the oracle of Apollo is consulted, Hermione appears in the guise of a statue and the play contains the most famous stage direction ever - "Exit, pursued by a bear" - none of which is easy for an audience brought up on Naturalism to accept.

It ends in reconciliation when, after 16 years, Perdita is reunited with her parents and plans to marry Polixenes' son, Florizel.

Sissons has embraced the idea of storytelling wholeheartedly. "Fiction is a preserver of memories. Stories pass on knowledge and wisdom. To find a way into the world of the play we have adopted a framing device. Mamillius (Leontes' young son who dies early in the proceedings) appears as a ghost in a derelict theatre. As the lost child he brings the characters back to play out their story. He has a box which contains key elements, such as the shawl in which Perdita is wrapped as a baby,which is returned to her and goes home to Sicilia. The box makes the Oracle possible and Mamillius also plays Time."

As for the sudden jealousy, it just has to be accepted in the end, although Sissons says he and his company of eight have talked about the relationship between the kings. They regard each other as brothers, so close that there is perhaps the kind of rivalry and competitiveness you might find between siblings.

Leontes' court is "monochrome", says Sisson. During the trial scene he realises that he has made a terrible mistake and spends the next 16 years "Miss Havisham-like - reclusive, a penitent. When Perdita and Florizel arrive in Sicilia it is as if the sun has come out. There is colour in Bohemia - at the sheep-shearing - love, family-feeling, and the verse opens out, too."

In the famous fulcrum scene, when tragedy turns to comedy, the old courtier Antigonus is killed by the bear and Perdita's life is saved. "We are seeing the bear as symbolic of Leontes and his jealousy. After that scene, everything changes."

Autolycus, the sharp-witted cheat and double-dealer, is "a lone wolf, not really anything to do with the play, but he introduces a welcome note of amorality into the serious discussion of moral issues", says Sissons.

The ending of forgiveness and reconciliation is possible because Antigonus'

wife Paulina - who defends Hermione and "lacerates" Leontes for his behaviour - keeps him alive. "Without her, he would commit sicide, but he is brought to the point where he can live with himself. It is important that he learns to forgive himself".

In Wakefield until tomorrow, then touring countrywide until May. Tel: 0114 275 5328www.compasstheatrecompany.com

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