The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s latest and strangest plays. It’s a mish-mash of genres, with passages of verse that showcase Shakespeare at his most experimental, together with plot interventions that wouldn’t be out of place in a French surrealist play (the intervention of Time to announce that we have leapt forward sixteen years, and the infamous stage direction ‘Exit, persuded by a bear’…).
Understandably, it’s a notoriously difficult production to stage. How to deal with the extremely erratic behaviour that its central characters exhibit – for instance Leontes transforming from a loving husband into a jealous tyrant in the space of about ten seconds? And how to approach the stylistic contrast between the Bohemian court and the pastoral idyll?
Declan Donnellan has directed the play before – twenty years ago – in a critcally acclaimed production also for Cheek by Jowl. This production accordingly exhibits a rich and detailed understanding of the play.
The first half is at times exceptional. The text has a resounding clarity and Leontes’ wild veering between jealousy and affection is portrayed with symapthy and insight by Orlando James. Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Hermione also deserves a mention; she’s captivating from start to finish.
Nick Ormerod’s design is also at its best during the first half, sparingly supportive and often strikingly visually arresting. Centered around a white crate reminiscent of a shipping container – serving as a ship, a projection screen, as a tomb and various other things – it’s elegantly minimalist and responds well to the needs of the play.
Sadly though, things take a turn for the worse on all fronts after the interval – when everything starts to feel a bit like a never-ending Bulmers advert hosted by the insufferable lovechild of Jack Whitehall and Russell Brand.
The text is drastically edited down, and is liberally interspered with newly scripted asides and mini-scenes – including a Jeremy Kyle -style TV showdown. Yet it all fails (and by some way) to be what it clearly sets out to be: funny, transgressive, carnivalesque. Instead, both visually and tonally it has the depressing feel of a summer jaunt for Hampstead dwellers deluded in the belief that by wearing skinny jeans, fondling acoustic guitars and snorting lines of coke they’re somehow radically inverting societal norms. Honestly, there were moments when I could barely watch…
Shakespeare’s pastoral plays use their rural settings to explore value-systems and ways of life that are starkly opposed to the shackled, morally prohibitive and emotionally inhibited ways of the court and the city. Rob The Winter’s Tale of this dichotomy and it is defanged.
Regrettably in Donnellan’s production a very muscularly reimagined court is counterposed by a wispish, gimmicky pastoral, tragically deracinating (not to mention taking the punch out of) an otherwise excellent production.