Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale
(Shakespeare's Globe)

Time for the second “Emilia” play in the Globe’s summer season, although as the Emilia (Zora Bishop) in The Winter’s Tale is a lady-in-waiting with few lines it’s not the strongest argument for the name’s significance to Shakespeare. The story really revolves around Leontes (Will Keen,) the Sicilian king and slipper enthusiast who’s been best friends with Bohemian king Polixenes (Oliver Ryan) all his life. But a sudden bout of jealous insanity convinces him that Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione (Priyanga Burford,) and nothing will shake him of that conviction. Courtier Camillo (Adrian Bower) manages to convince the visiting king that his friend is plotting to kill him, and they escape back to Bohemia, but the heavily pregnant Hermione isn’t so lucky: Publicly accused of cheating, she’s thrown into jail, put on show-trial and even the literal word of god (a judgement from the Delphic oracle) can’t convince her husband of her innocence.

It’s only when it seemingly results in the deaths of both Hermione and their son that Leontes’ madness fades as suddenly as it appeared; the baby girl the queen gave birth to just before her death disappears, but 16 years later in Bohemia she offers the possibility of redemption.

The Winter’s Tale is one of the Shakespeare plays I rarely get along with, especially its relentlessly single-minded first half, but I was hoping Blanche McIntyre, who’s been very impressive with Shakespeare in the last couple of years, could be one of those directors who finds something fresh in it. Sadly it wasn’t to be, in fact it made for an unusual drop in form from McIntyre – I have to make allowances for the fact that England’s World Cup semi-final match was going on at the same time, so the audience was a bit thinner on the ground and more distracted than usual, but even so this felt remarkably flat to me, a sense of will-this-do, nowhere more so than in the bear from Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction. There’s been some notoriously bad attempts to stage it, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything as half-hearted as a poster of a bear’s jaws (with… some sticks superimposed on it, I think?) being briefly hung up then dropped onto the stage. I really don’t even think it would have passed the basic “can someone who doesn’t know the play tell what’s meant to be happening?” test.

One thing I do really like about a play I generally don’t is that it features one of my favourite Shakespearean characters. I tend to describe Paulina as Shakespeare’s biggest badass – while everyone else is desperately trying to keep a low profile or appease the homicidal dictator, she unfailingly stands up to him, pointing out his faults, and then spends the next 15 years hanging around him reminding him of his sins. When Sirine Saba turns up it definitely does give the show a much-needed lift, and she plays Paulina with a certain sharpness that suggests she almost enjoys being the voice of Leontes’ conscience, like a more sympathetic Septa Unella.

With a kind of fairytale version of Elizabethan dress for the Sicilian scenes, James Perkins goes modern-dress for Bohemia, a section of the play I usually enjoy more although the older I get the grumpier I get about these scenes as well, particularly Autolycus (Becci Gemmell,) the cheeky-chappie pickpocket who is, more accurately, a mean-spirited predator who exclusively targets those who can least afford it, and keeps butting into storylines he doesn’t belong in. Still, Autolycus’ costume-swap with Florizel means we get to see Luke MacGregor in a pair of Daisy Dukes, so it’s not all bad.

MacGregor plays Florizel as something of a petulant teenager but there’s a genuine sense of something real between him and Norah Lopez-Holden’s Perdita. Annette Badland is a likeable Old Shepherd, and the gender-swap gives the chance to take that little bit more offence at everyone’s casual references to her age. There’s individual performances I liked – Bower, Saba, Badland, MacGregor and Howard Ward’s Antigonus all have some nice moments, while Burford's Hermione being regularly made speechless by the impossibility of defending herself really brings home her situation – but overall I struggled more than usual to stay interested in the story. Like the set design, which hangs metal arches above the stage to no obvious effect, the production has a disappointingly half-baked feel.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 14th of October at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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