The Winter’s Tale is one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote and many people see echoes of his own life in the story. The premature death of a son and the reunification of love and family against all odds seem to speak from a place close to the Bard’s heart. Be this as it may, it is all conjecture and as such becomes only one layer of what is a heavily nuanced play. The balance between reality and fairy tale is played to the limit and the trials of the characters are swift and severe for the most part. The play tries to balance various opposites with each other, giving the show a character unlike his other work. This RSC production captures a perfect balance between these various aspects of what is an enchanting whole.
The set design is simple but tremendously effective and warrants first mention. From the opening there are two large bookshelves lined with books that dominate the stage, elaborately filled by a dining table. When Leontes’ world comes crashing down around him, so do the bookshelves in a spectacular and unexpected moment that sees the whole stage change character in one brutal movement. The world becomes full of torn paper and books that act as scenery, grass, leaves on the imaginative trees and even costumes for a dance at the fayre and a puppet for the infamous pursuing bear. The puppet must reach about ten feet high and is marvellous piece of work. The artistic design of this torn paper look is surprisingly well suited to the play, helping it achieve the delicate balance between fairy tale and reality. A fantastically well used effect.
The actors take on the gauntlet thrown by the remarkable set and artistic design, carrying the torch with remarkable energy. Foremost among these is Greg Hicks, who is tormented almost from the first instant he appears on stage. The swift and dramatic descent of Leontes is one that can be hard to place without making it full of aimless shouting and general ire. Hicks manages to balance the desire to be rational and the inability to do so in what is a puzzlingly moving performance in the first half. His jealous rage flashes and fires in a powerful and directed way, bringing a reality to the show that is much needed. His performance is powerful, giving the authority that Leontes holds a feel of danger. You feel like you don’t know what he’ll do next even if you know the play. He single-handedly anchors the show in the serious and traumatic.
In contrast, Larrington Walker does everything he can to counter this. From the moment he walks on with his walking stick to the moment he leaves dressed up in his new gentlemanly suit he is a perpetual source of comic charm, bringing a lighthearted energy and wit that belies his age. He gifts us with what I would call a youthful performance and one that is a wonderful yin to Greg Hicks’ yan.
Noma Dumezweni also deserves a mention for the assured way in which she brings Paulina to the stage. Her character has the unenviable task of confronting the male powerhouses of the story and she does so with an authority that draws you to her. She is tasked with treading the tightrope between the real and the imagined when she has to bring Hermione back to life at the end and she does so with a wonderfully natural talent.
The supporting cast were in typically tremendous RSC form, their performances all standing up to the rigour of critique. Samantha Young, Tunji Kasim and Kelly Hunter all deserve a mention for their energetic and emotive contributions. The younger couple making the earlier sheep-shearing fayre a thoroughly enjoyable and ceaselessly entertaining period before the unification at the end plucks at your heartstrings in its magically melancholy way. The beginning of the second half with the introduction of Autolycus and the fayre is a marvelously energetic opposite to the first half, the dancing and costume making a previously dark scene lighten and gives a stage for the youth and magic of childhood and adolescence to fight against the pain of regret and mistakes that the older characters feel. Darrell D’Silva and John Mackay struck up a wonderful partnership as Polixenes and Camillo especially when they appear disguised in their tweed suits and bumbling mannerisms. A wonderful demonstration of ensemble work.
The music is an important aspect of the story and is a just as important cog of this production, the musicians both onstage and offstage add colour to the show and along with a very dramatic and sometimes harrowing echo effect it gave the show an added dimension that is hard to achieve, especially with Shakespeare. A similarly enjoyable achievement of the show is the humour that the cast bring out of the show. Understanding the language perfectly and bringing it out in a vivid array of colours and sounds brought laughs and good humour that broke up the harsh torment that takes center stage.
The unity of this production is remarkable. It navigates a demanding script with an effortless ease that holds the various facets of the show in a wonderful balance. This is as fine a Shakespeare show as you could wish for: entertaining and provocative, funny and dark, harsh and imaginative. A magnificent show.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by David Farr; at the Roundhouse Theatre; starring Darrell D'Silva, Noma Dumezweni, Greg Hicks, Kelly Hunter, John Mackay, Larrington Walker, Brian Doherty, Gruffudd Glyn, Tunji Kasim, Samantha Young; Runs from 14 December 2010 - 01 January 2011 as part of the RSC London Season.
John Ord (16/12/2010)