(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/27; Photo: Not your traditional Shakespeare … Winter’s Tale at Dailes theatre. Latvia. Photograph: Marcis Baltskars.)

The Winter’s Tale is retold with a virtual reality plot set in Silicon Valley and hardly any lines from the original, staged at a bold Latvian theatre elevating English talent

John Malkovich is directing Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, there are dramas by Dennis Kelly and Duncan Macmillan, Sarah Ruhl adapts Eurydice, and The Play That Goes Wrong is packed to the rafters. You might well be surveying London-wide theatre listings but this is the singular programme at Dailes theatre in Riga, Latvia’s capital where, alongside some American heavyweights, British talents are at the forefront this season.

Among them are writer-director Jeff James and designer Rosanna Vize with an eye-popping version of The Winter’s Tale, commissioned by Dailes’s artistic director, Viesturs Kairišs. It opens with Hermione pleasuring herself to VR porn, reimagines Bohemia as a deadly video game and turns theatre’s most famous stage direction into the supporting character of a hot-headed panda.

Time’s “swift passage” speech, fast-forwarding 16 years in the plot, is just about all that remains from the original text, although Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) is shrewdly added and complemented by a scene featuring Leonard Cohen’s Treaty (“I wish there was a treaty / between your love and mine”). It ends with a full ensemble jig to Beyoncé’s Texas Hold ’Em. Did I mention the nuptials are officiated by a banana avatar?

 “What I am doing would be illegal in the UK,” says James with a laugh, a couple of hours before the show’s premiere on a sweltering May evening. Completely rewriting Shakespeare could well be met with frosty suspicion at home. Never mind setting half the play inside a video game filmed with characters wearing “beautiful, insane, faux heads” and shown on a huge screen which mostly obscures the stage actors who stomp around behind, their oversized red boots poking out underneath.

“These are quite obviously distancing effects,” he deadpans. “But I would say that even these effects in combination are not as distancing as performing The Winter’s Tale in the original Shakespearean verse. I think that is the ultimate alienation effect. To take the story and structure of the play and find a kind of contemporary language and world for it, makes the play – I hope – much more immediate to an audience today.” It is an often daft yet clever and ultimately moving evening, which knowingly toys with the risible elements of the original play yet honours its delicate blend of hope and regret.

Vize has designed an office playground in pink and yellow to suit this play about injured innocence and a childish tyrant. The Silicon Valley company AppZapp is ruled by billionaire boss Leo (the Leontes role) who has built a Bohemia metaverse, where baby Rose will be spirited away. Everyone is in disguise in Shakespeare’s Bohemia, James points out. “I thought: where do people go today and appear to be someone they are not? The internet.”

The trial runs for Leo’s game have led to the deaths of several players, ratcheting up his trepidation and helping to explain his suspicion that Hermione is having an affair – something directors often have to work hard to establish. James, who happened to be expecting a second child with his partner while writing the script, was interested less in Leontes’s sexual jealousy than in the character’s anxiety about having another child. “I thought, is there a story here of birth trauma and postnatal depression, and a really complex shared experience that Hermione and Leontes had?” It is this fear that ultimately leads Leo to accuse Hermione of infidelity. “If you’ve got someone who is shaping the whole world through their technologies, and has staggering wealth, what could a man like that do if he had this mistaken idea?”

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