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A substantial sea change takes place between the two settings of "The Winter's Tale" -- the fraught court of Sicilia and the roisterous sheap-shearing of Bohemia.

A substantial sea change takes place between the two settings of “The Winter’s Tale” — the fraught court of Sicilia and the roisterous sheap-shearing of Bohemia. But in Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s great late romance, that’s nothing compared to the contrast between an underpowered and desultory first act, complete with an utterly perfunctory “exit pursued by a bear,” and the wonder induced after the intermission in a play virtually defined by that word. “My heart wept blood,” says the widowed Paulina (Deborah Findlay), and Hytner’s initially hit-and-miss production eventually demands that you do the same.

Some 16 years take place between the jealous flare-up of Leontes (Alex Jennings), the Sicilian king seen here in jeans, and the Bohemian frolics that follow, which couple Shakespearean rap with a dope-smoking, tent-dwelling milieu. But as seen on the second night, the production seemed to shed a post-opening stiffness, loosening up as its revellers do. By the final reconciliation back in designer Ashley Martin-Davis’ high-walled, monochrome court (giant photos of Hermione and the young Mamillius testifying visually to Leontes’ grievous loss), all was restored — which is as it should be in a play about forgiveness, healing and deep despair.

Hytner came a cropper on this same stage some years back directing “The Recruiting Officer,” only to oversee one of the Olivier auditorium’s biggest hits with the multiply reprised “Wind in the Willows.” So it’s not a surprise that he should be well aware of the workings of a thrust space requiring intimacy alongside a presentational appeal. Not only that, this production is perfectly reasonably being regarded in England as an audition piece of sorts, given Hytner’s frontrunner status to take over the National artistic directorship next year. (For an encore, he stages Mark Ravenhill’s new play in the Lyttelton later this season.)

Luckily, “The Winter’s Tale” ends up satisfying both sides of a tricky equation. We’re wide-eyed innocents alongside Leontes confronted with the statue of his wife Hermione (Claire Skinner), presumed dead, just as Jennings’ exhilarating command of the verse caters richly for the ear.

That’s why it’s slightly disconcerting at the start to feel a hollowness to some of the verse, with Skinner a pale Hermione — at least at the outset — in more ways than one. Come the second act, and Phil Daniels’ Autolycus kickstarts the action into far feistier life, his raspy-voiced rogue identifiable kin to the Jigger he played in Hytner’s National “Carousel.” While this guitar-playing Autolycus riffs on the Bard, Florizel (a preppy Daniel Roberts) and Perdita (Melanie Clark Pullen) weave their way through proceedings like two incipient potheads eager to “get down” — until a circular tale returns to Sicilia and the lost Perdita, of course, is found.

The closing scene is one of the affective triumphs in all of Shakespeare, and it is here piercingly served by the Paulina of Findlay (the actress was the heartstopping distaff lead in “Stanley” at this address in 1997), who is no mere scold but a rather grand broker of people’s affections. Still, what happens when you have catered to everyone else’s happiness except your own? That’s the question left lingering by a “Winter’s Tale” that shows how some wounds never fully heal even as it gains its footing in time to induce a curative hush.

The Winter's Tale

Royal National Theater/Olivier, London; 1,047 seats; £32 ($45) top

Production

A Royal National Theater presentation of the play by William Shakespeare in two acts. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative

Sets, Ashley Martin-Davis; costumes, Jon Morrell; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Paul Groothuis; music director, Simon Webb; songs, Webb and Phil Daniels. Opened May 23, 2001. Reviewed May 24. Running time: 3 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Leontes - Alex Jennings Paulina - Deborah Findlay Hermione - Claire Skinner Camillo - Joe Dixon Polixenes - Julian Wadham Florizel - Daniel Roberts Perdita - Melanie Clark Pullen Autolycus - Phil Daniels Old Shepherd - John Normington
With: Nick Sampson, Iain Robertson, Katy Secombe, Ann-Marie Roberts, Alex Dower, Katie Wimpenny, Brigid Zengeni, Richard Addison, Nicholas Prideaux, Steven Elliott, Stephen Rashbrook, Geoffrey Beevers, Peter Eastland, Jennifer Scott-Malden, Branwell Donaghey, Nick Sampson, Liam Hess, Thomas Brown-Lowe.

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