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 Jennings 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.
- Picture: Alex Jennings and Thomas Brown-Lowe as Mamillius
Tickets: 020 7452 3000
A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine