I’m not very keen on plays as a general rule, but how can you say no to Shakespeare? It’s hard to beat watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Lear in the summer of 2005 – in Stratford-on-Avon no less – even if I did have to leave 10 minutes before the end in order to catch the last train out. That wasn’t quite sufficient to justify the extravagant ticket price when Lear with Ian McKellen came down to Singapore a couple of years ago, but I decided I shouldn’t miss the relatively more affordable Winter’s Tale by The Bridge Project.

I haven’t read much of Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale included, but I’ve taken it to heart that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched by a mass audience, not read by literature buffs or boffins. Anyway, anything with Ethan Hawke has to be relatively accessible, right? I didn’t know much else about this production, except that it received rave reviews in New York where it opened, which was enough for me.

We arrived only just on time at the Esplanade, with no time to grab a programme and not much more to prepare the mental palate. And being woefully out of practice in rapid-fire Elizabethan English, I literally did not catch anything of the first five minutes. Luckily, I got into it subsequently and followed most of the rest.

This production was agreeably surprising in several respects. While making use of a few familiar Shakespeare devices, the plot was interesting and altogether very effective. Having shed buckets of tears prior to the intermission, I was expecting pretty much the same kind of tone in the second half, only to be assailed by (early 17th-century) populist comedy and a good deal of laughs, before a goosebump-inducing denouement. No wonder this play has been described (in the press) as having an unwieldy structure – but the direction of Sam Mendes (otherwise known as Kate Winslet’s husband) got around it admirably. I liked the use of British accents for the citizens of Sicilia and American for Bohemia – a practical decision, too, given the transatlantic nature of Bridge Project. Then I was blown away by the standout performance of Rebecca Hall amid a uniformly excellent (and, for Shakespeare, restrained) cast: her Queen Hermione was utterly admirable where she could easily have come across as strident. I was delighted to recognize Dakin Matthews in a sizable role – I’ve always enjoyed his appearances as Headmaster Charleston on Gilmore girls. The sets and costumes were elegant and beautiful (rather than minimalist or deliberately rough), the lighting was very intelligent. And our seats were upgraded (no doubt due to the recession-hit attendance) to a fairly good vantage point.

To top it all off, I learned from the programme that the Old Vic theatre in London is the other of the twin homes of The Bridge Project, which brought on a nice wave of nostalgia because I used to stay just behind the Old Vic. Didn’t manage to watch anything at the Old Vic while I was there, although I recall Kevin Spacey was already there at that point (in Henry III I think); he must really have taken to it since he’s now the artistic director.

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed this superb production, and am relieved that my brain hasn’t quite gone to mush since I started work. This was sort of a warm-up after a long hiatus from so-called intellectual pursuits – as part of my resolution not to waste too much time on mindless activities this year, I’m embarking on a major book-reading, film-watching, music-listening spree…