Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Winter's Tale

Can one have too much of a good thing?

The new RSC production of Shakespeare's strange and entrancing The Winter's Tale was not my first experience of the play. I've seen at least half a dozen varied stagings over the years, stretching back to the celebrated 1969 show in which Judi Dench played both the wronged queen Hermione and her 'lost' daughter Perdita.

Then, only just over two years ago, there was Dominic Cooke's daring staging in the tiny Swan Theatre, with actors and audience sharing the performance space, creating a sense of truth and immediacy, and reducing many to tears during the extraordinary twenty minutes at the end of the play.

For this production, director David Farr and his design team have had a 'big idea'. The play opens in the chilly court of King Leontes, the stage dominated by two towering, packed, bookcases. Hmm. Symbolism?

The first half of the play is almost unbearably tragic. Taken by a bolt-from-the-blue fit of jealousy, uptight Leontes (Greg Hicks) is convinced his hugely pregnant wife Hermione (Kelly Hunter) is about to give birth to the child of his best friend.

Cue a grotesque 'trial' in which the wronged wife nobly defends herself, dressed in the bloodied nightgown of her recent delivery. As the news arrives of the unexpected death of her and Leontes' first child, she falls to the ground, presumably dead.

Meanwhile, at Leontes' orders, the newborn child is being conveyed out of the kingdom and abandoned, prior to rescue by, you've guessed, a kindly shepherd.

Not surprisingly, these seemingly chaotic events take place against the background of a massive storm. At its height, the bookcases tilt giddily forward, spilling all their contents onto the stage as a violent gust of wind deposits a few reams of printed papers among the scattered volumes.

A thrillingly huge bear, made entirely of flapping sheets of paper, emerges for the unlucky baby-carrier to 'exit pursued by'. Are we getting the metaphor?

A twenty-minute interval zooms us forward by sixteen years - to the pastoral scenes in which we follow the story of Perdita, the 'lost' princess. The booky theme continues with paper trees and, most memorably, in the 'exploded book' costumes of the very rude sheepshearing dancers.

It's hard to gauge if the director intends all of the consequences of having so much paper under foot - and frequently stuck to foot. Funny at times, but I felt for the actors in the sublime final scene, speaking the verse to the accompaniment of A4 scrunching beneath shoe.

And yet, thanks to the clear, heartfelt performances of the actors, the 'concepty' staging didn't over-distract. And once again the magical, epiphanic final scene delivered its message of grace and truth with power and breath-stopping beauty.

Here's Michael Billington's review in The Guardian and, from the Telegraph, Charles Spencer's.


Philippe de Paris said...

Oh gosh. Your piece got me searching for the RSC production I know I saw in 1976 (being at boarding school in Oxford in 1976 doing English 'A' we were forever popping up to the RST).

What I remember mainly is the beautiful set (Lapp in Winter, just gorgeous in summer) and a very young and cute Cherie Lunghi, but cast also included Nickolas Grace, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Ian McKellan, Bob Peck, Roger Rees, David Waller, Michael Williams and John Woodvine - directed by Trevor Nunn and John Barton. Phew!! Ruth tells me she went too. Wish I could see it now and actually appreciate it!

Mr Gnome said...

Merci, Monsieur P de P!

The 1976 company reads like an honors list. Bob Peck - sadly missed. Roger Rees as well, still very much alive but working in USA - and a convert to judaism, by the way.

I missed that year's WT. In fact the only show I saw in 76 was a terrific Much Ado with Ms Dench and Donald Sinden as Beatrice and Benedict. Directed by the great John Barton, and set, strangely successfully, in the days of the Indian Raj.