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Set play

The Winter's Tale

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Roundhouse, London. From March 29 Matthew Warchus often gets a cast to read Shakespeare aloud in an American accent in rehearsals. "It makes the words sound fresh and different to them, and phrases and rhythms, inflections and tempi come alive. It is probable that the accent spoken when the plays were written was closer to American."

The Winter's Tale will be played in American accents, Sicilia sounding like Hollywood in the 1940s and Bohemia further south towards West Virginia, farming country. "The films of the 40s are full of tortured individuals and domestic dysfunction. The play (in which Leontes, King of Sicilia, becomes obsessively jealous when he imagines his wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia) slots in easily, with a man in extremis, brooding, dark, paranoid, at its centre."

Warchus says that the play is obviously a fable with a mythic structure and tone and outlandish things such as a bear and an oracle, yet the relationships are rooted in authentic emotion and psychology. "The production needs to be about people modern enough for us to know and understand, but we don't want to lose the mythic quality." Hence, Hollywood movies.

Given the setting, casting can't be "colour-blind". "Black people are exploited in Sicilia - Paulina and Antigonus are black - while there is more equality in Bohemia, 16 years later." There are hints, believes Warchus, that Leontes and Polixenes are brothers, but that Polixenes is from a more rural, authentic place. Leontes lives in a decadent world where "people lose contact with who they are" in the manner of pop or film stars.

"The play should be a warning - and most people can find something of a parallel to themselves in Leontes's obsession, the rapid, dark spiral into oblivion - yet he is also a particular kind of person. He goes in for massively exaggerated repentance. He is almost child-like in his extreme responses."

Warchus says he once took the view that Sicilia was dark and brutal, Bohemia an idyll with Time healing pain. "But Time doesn't heal." Florizel and Perdita are in love, but are not blissfully happy, and problems are still played out after 16 years. "A new beginning is achieved through coincidences and the inventiveness of Paulina and Camillo, not Time." An idyllic future is not impossible.

Heather Neill

Among associated events: Saturday debates (including 'Shakespeare and Sex'), post-show directors' sessions, presentations on rehearsal methods, talks on design. RSC: 01789 403467; tickets: 01789 403403; website: www.rsc.org.uk

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