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Review: The Winter's Tale

Review: The Winter's Tale

Review: The Winter's Tale cover photo on Stagedoor

There is no Shakespeare play where time is so important as it is in The Winter’s Tale, which arrives on BBC4 as part of the channel's virtual theatre festival Lights Up. Time even appears as a character in this desolately beautiful story, in which actions always have consequences as the years unravel. The play spans 16 years, beginning with the moment when Leontes (Joseph Kloska), King of Sicilia, is seized with an irrational jealousy and accuses his loyal wife Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) of being unfaithful to him with his long-time friend, Polixines (Andrew French), and ending when the play reaches its redemptive climax.

It’s quite a long haul in Erica Whyman’s visually attractive production, with a metal trellis style set design from Tom Piper that evokes prisons and darkness and at vital moments allows in the light. It takes us from 1953 (lots of lovely Norman Beaton-style costumes, courtesy of costume designer Madeleine Girling) to the late 60s, where Bohemia is very much in the grip of a summer of love and where the lost child Perdita, a delightful Georgia Landers, is definitely the “queen of curds and cream.” But a few cuts wouldn’t have come amiss. The experience of watching online is far less distilled than it is watching in the theatre.

But then it’s been quite a long haul for all of us over the last year, and it has been to get this production in front of an audience too. Many might have just given up, but Whyman has fought to get it seen. It was scheduled to open shortly before the lockdown happened, was re-scheduled and abandoned, and is now premiering on TV, the first time the RSC has done such a thing in its 60-year history.

This production doesn’t take the risks (or reap the rewards) of the NT’s recent collaboration with Sky on Romeo and Juliet, which offered a genuine hybrid of theatre and film. It takes a much more traditional approach, although some good use is made of direct address to the camera and, as always, Whyman’s direction is intelligent, perceptive and has some moments of inspiration that make you sit up and see the play through fresh eyes. The trial scene is very cleverly done, almost invoking black and white news footage of the era, and the famed “exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction takes on a new spooky, torch-lit meaning about female power and energy.

Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Like both Cheek by Jowl’s Russian and English-language versions of the play, Whyman taps into the darker currents of the marital set-up and Leontes’ anger and violence. We see Hermione flinch has he moves to hit her in full view of the court and in the final scene Jacobs eyes are both wary and bewildered suggesting that this apparently happy ending may yet need to be fully earned. Is a man saying sorry for his actions ever enough? Will she return to the marriage bed? The questions linger.

There are a couple of very fine performances too from Ben Caplan as Camillo and Amanda Hadingue as Paulina. The former looks at Leontes with a heart-rending mixture of bafflement and tender pity as he hears the king rant against his loyal queen, and Hadingue’s Paulina is fuelled by a mix of moral fierceness and quiet female fury. Whyman’s revival reminds that The Winter’s Tale is a play for our time, It's one in which time heals, but also inflicts ravages that can never fully be undone.

You can watch The Winter's Tale on BBC iPlayer, details here

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Lyn Gardner

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