There’s a hidden irony to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s openly emotional, twinned productions of “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles.” While both plays build through prolonged sadness to joyous reconciliation — they could be filed under Lost & Found — the productions mark the farewell of their director Dominic Cooke, who’s now heading to the Royal Court.
One of the RSC’s associate directors, Cooke has had a twin role with the company, directing plays and serving as season director for the New Work Festival in 2004 and ’05, which premiered works from both sides of the Atlantic. His biggest single splash was his electrifying production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which moved from Stratford-Upon-Avon to a West End run.
These two boldly imaginative productions of late Shakespeare romances are equally arresting.
Underlining the linkages between the plays, Cooke uses the same handpicked company of actors and stages both plays in a radically reconfigured space, working with designer Mike Britton to transform the RSC’s Swan Theater.
The ground-floor seating has been stripped out. The resultant promenade space allows auds and actors to mingle throughout the production. Standing close enough to the actors that one can touch them gives everything immediacy and a rare emotional charge. Actors simply cannot generalize when they are locking eyes not only with other characters but also with audience members.
That much is instantly clear from the start of “The Winter’s Tale.” Relocated to the early 1950s, the play’s opening party scene now takes place at a formal New Year’s Eve function at which incoming audience members are announced and invited to join in waltzes accompanied by a five-piece band. That’s followed by a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” the elation of which galvanizes the opening of the play proper.
Under cross-examination by her furious, fiercely jealous husband, Leontes (a meticulous, driven Anton Lesser), Kate Fleetwood’s superbly direct Hermione can appeal to all those gathered in the court that surrounds her. And when the action shifts forward 16 years to the countryside of Bohemia, a lean and splendidly malign Richard Katz as thieving Autolycus can practice his pickpocketing and crowd-pleasing antics in a real crowd.
Cooke’s African-set “Pericles” is no less effective. This is a harder play to pull off; much of it is of doubtful authorship, with sections of labored writing, and the characters’ long journey across time and countries is episodic. Cooke summons up a tremendously warm Greek wedding sequence complete with a traditional “jump the broomstick” moment, but his trump card is this production’s fluidity.
Britton’s design creates a rusted walkway curving down from the upper gallery to the floor, allowing for all manner of surprise entrances and exits. It comes into its own during the scene where Pericles (a calmly unaffected Lucian Msamati) challenges the rivals for the hand of Thaisa (Fleetwood). The ridiculous suitors race around the theater performing a comic pentathlon, shooting pistols from the gallery, fencing in the arena, appearing to horse-race on the walkway, even swimming in the widescreen-style wooden inner stage at one end of the auditorium.
Yet despite all the imaginative energy in the staging, what shines through is Cooke’s tenacity. Scene after scene conveys the impression of text mined for its full potential. Which is why this critic was certainly not the only one with tears in his eyes at the profoundly moving reuniting of husband and wife, father and daughter that close the plays.
Cooke’s actors do not emote for the sake of it. The emotions they register are tethered to a psychological and physical understanding of a given moment. Obvious as that might sound, it’s rare and stems from unusually detailed groundwork in rehearsal.
The depth he coaxes from his cast is exemplified by Linda Bassett, the standout in both shows. In “The Winter’s Tale,” her fur-collared tigress of a Paulina is gloriously funny, but never at the expense of the character’s seriousness. As the irate whoremonger in “Pericles,” she allows us to see her practicality while being truly savage.
The shows’ site-specific nature would appear to militate against them having a life beyond Stratford. But outside producers with a similarly malleable space are likely to be hovering.
Not that Cooke’s future depends upon it. From Jan. 1, he’ll take over as the Royal Court’s artistic director. His previous productions there include Christopher Shinn’s “Other People” and Caryl Churchill’s “This Is a Chair,” which he co-directed with outgoing a.d. Ian Rickson. London theater awaits his announcement, expected by the end of January, of his opening season.