THEATRE REVIEW: The Winter's Tale

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre hosts a new production of The Winter's Tale before it sets off on tour, featuring madness, romance and an unusual amount of Morris dancing.

The Winter's Tale follows the tragic collapse of several relationships at once after Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), King of Sicilia, believes his wife Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Adam Levy), King of Bohemia. Everything goes wrong in spectacular fashion, leading to Leontes and Hermione's daughter Perdita being abandoned on the shore in Bohemia, Hermione dead and Leontes deeply repentant yet ultimately powerless. Many years later, Perdita (Emma Noakes) meets Florizel (Gavin Fowler), Polixenes' son, and begins a romance that could redeem and restore the happiness that has been lost.

The first thing to be said about both the play itself and the performance of it is that it is all a very mixed bag. For the play, this is due to Shakespeare's mix of genres and styles, leading to a narrative that goes from tragedy to comedy and just about everything in between. It's a heady mix that provides a fascinating tale of relationships, both familial and romantic, and all the ups and downs that come with them. In performance though, this was unfortunately translated into a varied medley of great acting, dodgy accents and some weird directional choices. I went to see it with my friend Thomasin, who has also reviewed it on her blog, which I think you should definitely check out. It's a great review, and though our opinions differ greatly on some aspects (more on that later), we've agreed about most things.

First up, the good stuff. The central performance of Stone-Fewings as Leontes was pitch-perfect, capturing the wild, sudden descent into madness which the character must go through, whilst tempering it wih the mournful need for redemption in the second half of the play. Rakie Ayola as Paulina, Hermione's loyal friend, was a fantastic performance that embraced the capriciousness and bullish nature of the character without falling into full caricature as the temptation could often be. In the second half, Pearce Quigley's Autolycus was the stand-out character and the actor had a real gift with the Shakespearian language, seemingly knowing instinctively where the jokes were. It was a masterclass in comic timing which was unfortunately lessened by the occasional switches back into modern English, but for the most part, it was a highlight in what wasn't a great second act.

The set was another example of the 'mixed bag' effect that this performance generated. In the opening scenes, the set looked luxurious, a pre-Raphealite palace full of cushions and rugs that perfectly fitted the ostentatious royal party, all leisurely drinking and bare-footed dancing. At the back, though, was an animation projected on to a screen that depicted the edge of the castle and the sea beneath. Contrasted with the beauty of the stage set, the screen looked out of place and though it was used in a rather neat way of conveying the mood of the scene and the passage of time, it achieved nothing that could not have been done better with the right sound and lighting effects.

One of the major points of contention between Thomasin and myself was Tara Fitzgerald's debut RSC performance as wronged queen Hermione. Whilst Thomasin loved the 'vivacious', loud and brash performance giving by Fitzgerald in Hermione's trial, I felt that it lost the character somewhat. Hermione is supposed to be the calm to Leontes' storm and her logical speech is the complete antithesis to his unfounded rage. Whilst I wouldn't expect her to be as still as a statue (Literature Joke Klaxon) in this scene, I felt that a lot of what makes Hermione's character so brilliant was lost amongst Fitzgerald's over-emphasis and wild gesticulation. I liked her in other scenes of the play, particularly the opening, but I felt that the trial scene didn't pack the emotional punch that it could, and should, have done.

Now, The Winter's Tale is a play famous for possessing within its hallowed pages one of the most famous stage directions in cinematic history; exit, pursued by a bear (coincidentally, one of mine and Jen's Shakespearian Unsung Heroes). Part of the excitement of going to see this play was to see how they do the bear, which not only functions as a form of entertainment, but also as a destructive device that heralds the end of the tragedy half of the play and begins the comedy. It's so important, I found myself speculating beforehand; Would they make it comical? Would they make it horrific and scary with sharp pointy teeth? Would they get a man in a bear suit? Would they, in fact, somehow get a REAL bear?! (Ok I may have got carried away with that one). So which option did they go for?

Well, none of the above.

No, the directorial decision here was to utilise the ugly video projection screen at the back to animate some sort of weird sea bear thing that loomed across the back wall for a second before disappearing and leaving a wave of incredulity in its wake. "That was it?" I declared to Thomasin, staring aghast at the screen which at this stage, was also obscured by the huge tower construction that Leontes lay trapped on so the bear couldn't even be seen properly by the audience. When the shepherd and his son come on afterwards to talk about the animal attack, much of the comedy was lost from the conversation, simply because the bear hadn't had enough of a presence to warrant it. A man in a bear suit may have looked cheesy, and I don't necessarily think that would be the best option, but it would have at least garnered a major reaction from the audience.

Unfortunately, this also marked the downturn in the quality of the play. The second half was a muddled loud affair that seemed more like a showcase for the cast's Morris-dancing talents than it did for their acting skills. By the time we got on to the third iteration of a giant, seaweed monster thing thrusting about the stage, I was just willing the story to continue. It also didn't help that Emma Noakes' Perdita was an odd interpretation of the character; many comments are made in the play about Perdita's inherent nobleness, revealing her identity as a princess, but this made no sense with the decision to have Perdita speaking in an awful northern accent and making crude jokes.

What struck me most about this production was the feeling of lost potential. Despite my personal issues with Fitzgerald's interpretation of Hermione, the first half was a very strong affair, capturing much of what makes The Winter's Tale such an interesting play. Had this continued into the second half, it could have been a great interpretation of what is a very odd, yet brilliant play. A muddled second act let it down and unlike Leontes, could not be redeemed by the final, and iconic, statue scene.

In case you missed it, here's the link to Thomasin's review.

- Becky

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