Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Cheek by Jowl)

After a couple of years away Cheek by Jowl finally return to London, and with their English-speaking company, with a rather odd production of a Shakespeare play I rarely like. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod go pretty basic for The Winter's Tale, on an almost-bare stage, with music only playing occasionally, and a monochrome Sicilia where King Leontes' (Orlando James) story opens with a dumbshow that gives us an idea of his relationship with the three most important people in his life, his lifelong best friend Polixenes (Edward Sayer,) King of Bohemia, wife Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke,) and their son Mamillius (Tom Cawte.) The happy tableaux of the opening belie the fact that Leontes will soon lose all three of them due to a violent fit of jealousy that's completely unprovoked and makes little sense.

Donnellan has tried to inject a little logic into Leontes' breakdown starting with these opening moments where he's established as being a little too overly tactile and perhaps as much in love with Polixenes as he is with Hermione - could his confusion over this be what makes him suddenly convinced the two are having an affair, and the child his wife is carrying isn't his?

There's also the way Cawte plays Mamillius as having some form of autism, which also makes him super-tactile and freak out if he's taken away from his parents, which could be a hint as to why he gets mortally ill once their marriage implodes; but it also points to the way his father's behaviour mirrors this, and Leontes may also have some trouble interpreting social signals. It's all part of an approach that solves a lot of my usual problems with The Winter's Tale: The play's Sicilian scenes revolve around this unexplained breakdown, and directors seem to find it very hard not to have it descend into a monotonous hour of blind, unsympathetic rage.

But Cheek by Jowl are a company who can put a new spin on things and have largely succeeded in making the first half of the play tense and tragic rather than bleak and turgid, although I could have done without James' performance edging into the weirdly camp quite so often. There also seem to have been some cuts to the role of Paulina (Joy Richardson,) which is a shame as I'll hear no argument against the fact that she's the best character in the play (and I'm hard pushed to think of a bigger badass in all of Shakespeare.)

Although the play's second half, which mostly takes place in Bohemia 16 years later, is the reason the play has its reputation of a confusingly uneven tone, I often find them the best scenes in the play because they let loose and allow for a bit more variety. But although Donnellan can't be acused of not providing just that, after the interval his tight hold on the play seems to fall apart, and the pastoral comedy scenes feel rushed and confused, with a lot of scenes replaced with modern dialogue and the various family secrets revealed via a TV talk show. The indecision over how to do these scenes is never more apparent than in Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson,) the con-man who can be played anywhere on a scale from purely comic to genuinely sinister: Here he's very much the lovable rogue throughout, until a completely out-of-the-blue shift to the darkest portrayal of the character I've seen in his final moments.

So somehow the company seem to have managed to make The Winter's Tale even more uneven in mood than it already is, and the underwritten romance between Leontes' lost daughter Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) and Polixenes' son Florizel (Sam Woolf) gets particularly short shrift here. So in the end it feels like Donnellan has nailed the difficult Sicilian scenes only to drop the ball on the Bohemian ones - but those Sicilian scenes really are impressively done (as is Peter Moreton's quick-change from Antigonus to Old Shepherd, where he basically walks behind the white shed clean-shaven in a suit and walks out the other side with a beard and long hair.)

Oh, and the bear is done very low-key which is, let's face it, the safest way to avoid embarrassment.

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare is booking until the 22nd of April at Silk Street Theatre; then continuing on tour to Bristol, Athens, Palma, Moscow and Voronezh.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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