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Set play

THE WINTER'S TALE. National Theatre (Olivier).

The actor playing Leontes, King of Sicilia, has one of the toughest tasks in Shakespeare: he must become credibly jealous to the point of homicidal madness in a matter of minutes.

The "evidence" which persuades him that his innocent wife, Hermione, is unfaithful with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and bearing his child, is no more than a few simple expressions of affection. Leontes causes suffering, imprisoning his wife, banishing his new-born daughter and indirectly making his young son, Mamillius, decline and die. Yet he too suffers, spending 16 years in penitence and guilt. But, this being one of Shakespeare's "romances", there is redemption, even happiness, in the final scene. An interpretation of Leontes must combine his inexplicable cruelty with understandable human fallibility.

Alex Jennings manages all this to perfection, taking the audience with him on the roller-coaster journey of his emotions in Nicholas Hytner's sure-footed modern-dress production. He and Polixenes (Julian Wadham) share memories of an idyllic childhood, a boyishness which the setting suggests they have not relinquished, despite their status. It is difficult to combine this kind of relationship with marriage and children, and ennings manages to make sense of Leontes's confusion.

The modern setting gives the outspoken Paulina, played with passionate conviction by Deborah Findley, a platform which seems more natural than the Jacobean one, where she can seem risible. She tells Leontes the truth unflinchingly, and contributes to his punishment. Claire Skinner as Hermione is dignified and elegant, a beautiful supposed statue at the denouement.

In Act IV, the action moves to Bohemia where the lost baby, Perdita, has grown up as a shepherd's daughter and met Polixenes's son, Florizel, whom she loves. The joyful rural interlude of the sheep-shearing, with the charlatan Autolycus fleecing the country folk more thoroughly than any sheep, is here transformed into a Glastonbury-style festival. The downside of this is that the sweet love of Perdita (Melanie Clark Pullen) and Florizel (Daniel Roberts) looks pale and insignificant amid the loud and colourful goings-on. On the plus side, Phil Daniels's rudely hilarious Autolycus leads the company in a wild sequence which students will love. Tell them the central rock number isn't authentic, then get them to see how many Shakespearean references they can spot. They'll be asking for the CD on the way out.

Heather Neill Tickets: 020 7452 3000

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