at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 30th January 2013
Originally reviewed for Exeunt.
I think it’s worth, in the interests of full disclosure, acknowledging that The Winter’s Tale is probably in my top three “favourite Shakespeare plays”. It’s maybe even my favourite. I should also point out that I recently spoke to Lucy Bailey about the production so was probably more well-versed in what the production was trying to do than many people coming to see the show would be. Despite these points, however, I’m still of the opinion that The Winter’s Tale is one of the most exciting, intriguing and affecting productions the RSC have produced in a long while, giving David Farr’s take on the play in 2009.
A thought struck me while watching The Winter’s Tale (which, to my mind, is one of Shakespeare’s most ‘modern’ works as a dramatist); depending on your view or interpretation, one could either view the first half of the play, set in Sicilia, as the longest set-up ever written, or the second half, in Bohemia, as the longest epilogue. Though this is, to an extent, a false dichotomy, Bailey seems to veer towards the former, for it is the second half, after Leontes’ break-down, which contains within it the points she is attempting to make, showing Bohemia to be a place of hope and joy, succeeding where many directors fail.
The first act opens in the court of Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), with cushions and hookah pipes splayed around the stage, courtiers dressed in pageant finery and half a dozen sleeping courtiers. At the back of the thrust stage sits a large circular dais which supports a semicircular ivory bench and foregrounds a 10 metre high screen which hangs just behind the RST’s proscenium arch, showing images of calm water. This is a peaceful, idyllic setting, where the people are forever holidaying and completely insular. As Leontes’ jealousy grows, however, darkness falls; the colourful robes are thrown off to reveal Victorian whites and blacks, passion grows and the waves on the screen become more stormy. This is the effect of a troubled, tyrannical brain.
(I was a little worried at first that William Dudley’s video design seemed to be a little – for want of a better word – flimsy. The animation felt a little basic and some images didn’t feel as imposing as they ought to. As the piece progressed, however, it became clear that Dudley’s actually being pretty smart in using this aesthetic. Firstly, it means this setting is placed against this background, allowing for a more intense exploration of the central metaphors. By layering over watercolour brush strokes, too, we see a visual representation of Leontes’ thoughts which would otherwise be more difficult to imagine. Most importantly, however, the synthetic quality of the animation hints towards expressionism, reminding us that this is a fiction and not reality. There are many more people who could write about the subject of aware falseness and synthetic reality far more intelligently that I, but I think you get the gist.)
A rather large spoiler about the production is necessary in the next paragraph. Skip it if you’re planning on seeing the show.
As the first act draws to a close, after Polixenes (Adam Levy) has left and the reported deaths of Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Mamillius, the dias on which Leontes sprawls begins to raise out of the ground, extending upwards to create a 10-metre tall tower in a stunning coup-de-theatre. It has a steampunk-y appearance and becomes a central visual symbol in the second act, demonstrating the disconnect between the industrialised working class and the king at the top of his ‘ivory tower’. Leontes remains there for the entirety of the Bohemia scenes, prostrate and broken.
This Bohemia is a northern seaside town in England which is in the process of celebrating Wakes week. Everyone is relaxing by the pier, getting up only to revel and dance to Jon “Bellowhead” Boden’s toe-tapping, foot-stomping folk music. This is a celebration of all things human, and Perdita and Florizel lay at the centre of it, as the townsfolk around them invest all their hopes and aspirations in this younger generation. Refreshingly, this is an honest, down-to-earth representation of a couple in love, with Emma Noakes and Gavin Fowler refusing to take on the lofty, romantic tones of many actors in these scenes.
The humour in the second act is also fantastic, being demonstrative of a joyful but dour outlook on life which these people embody. Captivating performances are given by David Shaw-Parker and Nick Holder’s shepherds, and Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus is perhaps the best Shakespearean fool I’ve seen on stage.
Though the first act contains within it some of Shakespeare’s best poetry and features impressive (though sometimes slightly over-emphatic) performances from Stone-Fewings and Fitzgerald, the second half is undoubtedly the most entertaining and is clearly where Bailey’s heart lies, finishing in a stunning dénouement in the statue scene (lit gorgeously by Oliver Fenwick) where the two aforementioned performances come into their own and are supported brilliantly by Raike Ayola’s calm but powerful Paulina.
Throughout all this, however, is the clear idea that hope for a better, more equal kingdom in the future lies in the younger generation. Only they can connect the worlds at the top and bottom of the ivory tower and throw off the tyrannical and violent urges of their parents. Ultimately, then, Bailey’s production of The Winter’s Tale is one of reconciliation and hope for those who may not have the comforts of the court but sure as hell have a passion for life.