Theatre Review: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (Cheek by Jowl, Barbican)

Director: Declan Donnellan

Grade: A-

The Winter’s Tale (WT henceforth) has been having a bit of a quiet moment in the past five years. It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more popular works, and a fair few critics class it as one of his ‘problem plays’. Its tone screeches from tragedy to comedy to fairy-tale to myth with no warning, its final reunion is notoriously manipulative, and it is very, very hard to believe in the redemption of its monstrous ‘hero’. But – just as Shakespeare’s greatest works so often seem to stump directors – his more thorny stuff seems to bring out their best. WT has had a number of extremely well-received revivals in the recent past, and this production may be my favourite in the Tax Year of Shakespeare so far.

Leontes (a blisteringly good Orlando James) has a problem. He believes that his wife Hermione (a restrained and steely Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and his bestie Polixenes (Edward Sayer) are having an affair, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Shakespeare has dealt with poisonous male jealousy before – notably in Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. But in these plays he has made a gesture towards giving the jealous lover some token grounds for suspicion. In other words, he’s been interested in the tragic, or near-tragic, consequences of male jealousy. Here he doesn’t allow Leontes – or his viewing audience – any mercy. It is clear that Leontes’s increasingly wild suspicions are groundless. It is also clear that this unstable tyrant will brook not even the mildest questioning without frothing about the nest of traitors about him. In short order he imprisons his horrified queen, demands that she – and the child she carries – be put to death, and clings to his tottering house of suspicion with the demented fixity of a Trump supporter. (Yes, I went there). He even blasphemes against the Oracle of Apollo, which issues a nice, concise, unambiguous declaration of Hermione’s innocence and his own tyranny – because he believes that the Oracle has made an error in one detail. Of course, since he has offended someone more powerful – and just as tyrannical – retribution is swift and terrible. Hermione and Leontes’s young son dies, and Hermione with him (or so we believe). Leontes is left to his grief – and the choice words of his retainer Paulina (a very sassy Joy Richardson).

The consequences are indeed dreadful. But in this play Shakespeare seems more concerned with the mechanics of jealousy and abuse, than with its consequences. It’s very clear that Leontes’s affections are theatrical, even hysterical. James’s unusually young Leontes shows that narcissism and the ugly desire to control are not the preserve of any particular age. (And Donnellan has Leontes’s young son (Tom Cawte) display a hysterical possessiveness of his mother that looks very, very like his father’s.) Even Leontes’s transports of contrition and grief seem to be nothing more than another role to play. Greater and louder demands for attention. No publicity is bad publicity, right, Leontes?

Well, in any case, Leontes’s suspicions have cost him his best friend, his son, his wife and possibly his daughter. And now we move forward sixteen years, to another country, another season and a completely different genre of play.

Or do we? WT’s latter half is mostly set in the perennial summer of Polixenes’s kingdom, where Hermione and Leontes’s daughter Perdita (…yup) has been left to die and been reared by shepherds. (….Yes.) Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) and Polixenes’s son Florizel (Sam Woolf) have fallen in love, and it is all sunlit and pastoral, complete with a charming trickster named Autolycus (wittily played by Ryan Donaldson) and hi-jinks about the evils of charming strangers, picturised with hoe-downs and Jeremy Kyle-style reality show screaming matches. (….Yes.) Also songs. It’s enough to give you whiplash.

But then Polixenes finds out about his son’s honourable intentions towards the seeming shepherdess, and you’re reminded of precisely what play you’re in. Polixenes’s response has a very familiar misogyny and psychotic possessiveness. He disinherits and banishes his only child, and the young lovers decamp to Leontes’s kingdom.

Wherein Leontes is reunited with his daughter, and Paulina decides that – since he’s done a passel of grieving and growing off-stage in the last sixteen years – he will be shown a very life-like statue of his dead wife Hermione. (……………..Yes.)

The production actually manages to pull off this entirely preposterous development, by the bye. It is still, and hushed, and delicate, and genuinely rather beautiful. The company falls in tableau around the reawakened Hermione like a triptych. I found myself hoping, even though Leontes doesn’t seem to have matured a jot.

Nick Ormerod’s set is nimble and spare. Completely right for this agile production of this difficult, lovely play, so much more concerned with archetypes than with specifics. Although I’m not sure about the added value of the onstage film projection. It seemed an unnecessarily ‘contemporary’ touch.

All in all, a clear-eyed, beautifully-observed production of a fierce, troubling play.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Silk Street Theatre until April 22nd. 

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