When we heard about the Bridge Project's stint at The Old Vic we knew it was not to be missed. So much so we rushed to buy tickets for The Winter's Tale without being familiar with the play. While the West End seems to be dominated recently by Shakespeare's greatest hit, it's refreshing to see one of his less well-known plays delivered with such style that reminds you why Shakespeare deserves the hype.
It is a classy ensemble cast including Simon Russell Beale as the deluded and destructive Leontes, a stunningly powerful Rebecca Hall as his wronged wife Hermione and Ethan Hawke, demonstrating his rather charming guitar-playing skills as troubadour Autolycus.
The actors have found the rhythm in Shakespeare's writing and occasionally the dialogue sings. But undoubtedly the big draw here is Sam Mendes' return to London theatre following his film successes. Achieving a coherence between the tragic drama of Sicilia in the first half and the bawdy comedy of Bohemia in the second makes this a notoriously difficult play but Mendes' deft hand blends the two into a believable whole. The final scene is one of the most moving pieces of theatre we've seen in a while, and as the lights go down on Beale and Hall there is a beautifully judged ambiguity to the happily-ever-after ending.
Most Shakespeare production designs seem to suffer from an interpretation that is imposed on the text, but here there is little about Mendes' choices that seems consciously artful. Special mention should go to Mark Bennett's music that gives the spine a little tingle at the right moments.
And if that's not enough of a recommendation how about the most comfortable stalls seats we've ever had the pleasure of sitting in - and the opportunity to see the stage direction 'Exit pursued by a bear' realised with panache.
By Liz Bickerdike
The Winter's Tale runs until 15 August at the Old Vic, alongside The Cherry Orchard. For more information go to the Old Vic website. All images by Joan Marcus.