With its abrupt lurch from tragedy to happy ending and its actual bears, Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale presents a director with all manner of challenges.
Fortunately, Blanche McIntyre is a director of textual sensitivity and she brings clarity, intelligence and insight to the play’s complexities and contradictions.
This is a play in which a man’s envy is such he all but destroys his family. Leontes flies into an irrational fury when he starts to suspect his wife Hermione has betrayed him and is carrying the child of his friend Polixenes. His rage is so uncontainable, his belief that she has betrayed him so unshakeable, that even when her innocence is confirmed by the oracle of Apollo he can’t let go of his hate. When his son dies, he banishes his newly born daughter. But she is rescued and lives happily for 15 years in far-away Bohemia.
In keeping with the rest of Michelle Terry’s inaugural season as artistic director, McIntyre’s production is stripped-back, bordering on the austere. In the Sicilia scenes, the actors wear robes and tunics, but when we move to Bohemia they don more contemporary costumes. Even though Becci Gemmell’s Autolycus is shown hawking T-shirts as if at a music festival and the Bohemians’ faces all sparkle with glitter, McIntyre doesn’t labour the play’s timeliness.
Will Keen is an incredibly intense Leontes. He delivers his speeches with an agitated staccato power and hisses the word “adulteress” as if it pained him, as if it were laced with cayenne pepper. It comes to feel a bit relentless. Too late his rage transmutes into grief and self-pity. The women are assured and composed in comparison. Sirine Saba is a formidable, stage-dominating Paulina, and Priyanga Burford a dignified Hermione. Norah Lopez-Holden is a confident, expressive Perdita and Annette Badland, as the shepherd, is warm, kind and good-humoured. Gemmell is a great comic presence.
The play’s narrative is one of redemption and restoration. But it all happens so abruptly that the happiness of this happy ending feels questionable, and even McIntyre can’t prevent this shift in tone from jarring.
The Sicilia scenes take a while to get going and the pared-back staging means the cast needs to work harder to fill the space. Only slowly does the production start to cast a spell.
It’s the clarity of the verse that gives the production its potency. It’s strongly performed and there’s a real sense of a company connected to the text. There’s magic here but it’s intermittent.