But for a jarring and wholly unnecessary change of tack at the start of Act Two, the Lyceum have a stylish, contemporary Scottish Shakespeare on their hands here with this production, directed by Max Webster.
John Michie (Taggart, Coronation St) plays the Sicilian King, Leontes, a pitiable man, plagued by the misguided thought that his wife Hermione (Frances Grey) has been cheating on him with his friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, (Andy Clark) and that the child that grows within her is not his own. Hermione is duly imprisoned, the child banished from the kingdom, and Leontes left to face and respond to the consequences of his actions.
From the opening moments, the play cuts a very distinctive, very effective dash. The Sicilian courtiers are re-cast as smart, metropolitan Edinburgh professionals, gathered for a Christmas drinks party. Shakespeare’s words are given lively, fresh rhythm, the intonation allowing them to flow and hit our ears like the conversation of modern urbanites. A band, huddled together in a recording booth stage right, are unobtrusive, adding a soupçon of Celtic colour here and there without ever overwhelming the piece.
The cast are strong. Michie takes us down into the depths of Leontes’ wicked paranoia, his bouts of overthinking signaled by a quivering violin solo. Maureen Beattie makes a formidable Paulina, wearing her guile and wisdom with confidence. John Stahl is equally commanding as Paulina’s husband Antigonus, and as he brings the first half to a close by abandoning the young Perdita in the wilds of Bohemia (here, Fife) on the order of his king, we’re sure we have the measure of the piece. It’s slick, it’s confident; if it were a restaurant, it’d be a pricey New Town brasserie (“traditional with a contemporary Scottish twist”).
And then… Then it all goes panto. There’s shopping trolleys and gold trousers and Proclaimers spoofs. There’s cheeky bantz, there’s knowing winks. The original text is dropped for a full frontal Scots onslaught (from the pen of John Robertson) – sometimes a straight translation, sometimes entirely off script. We’ve been whisked off to a fairground in Fife, where everyone’s a ned and Jeremy Kyle would fear to tread. The intent is clear – to put metaphorical distance between the cosmopolitan court of Leontes and Polixenes’ yokel-festooned backwater – but boy, is it overplayed. Dozens of cheap laughs are had, but at the expense of any consistency of tone.
Of course, the comedy belongs to the original. Thieving scamp and purveyor of dildos, Autolycus (Jimmy Chisholm), is meant to be bawdy. But this is no mere comic aside or tonal contrast from the first half, it’s an utterly different beast. It’s strawberry sauce on a fillet steak. Both have their place but it’s madness to put them in the same dish. When a Scottish flavour has been so subtlely imparted in part one, to see it undone with these garish stereotypes is a real shame.
The play recovers its senses for a still and noble finale, in which Paulina leads Leontes and family to some sort of restitution, but how much more beautiful it could have been without those few moments of madness in a Fife fairground.