FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Blanche McIntyre The Winter’s Tale is designed by James Perkins who ensures the stage’s pillars and ground evoke the more Spartan reaches of Sicily’s twelfth-century cultural mix; and Bohemia’s relaxed contemporary one. Stephen Warbeck’s sparse and punchy music directed by Robert Millett is allowed a brief flourish.
‘A sad tale’s best for winter.’ In sweltering late-June heat, Blanche McIntyre’s The Winter’s Tale has no trouble in evoking Bohemia’s late summer; Sicilia’s wintry demesnes on a bare stage is a different matter. In this late romance of abrupt magical transitions, motiveless jealousy, deaths vanishings and redemption McIntyre’s ‘take .. has been to bring Bohemia close to us, and push Sicilia away by contrast.’
Sicilia’s where we start, at a bare court suiting McIntyre’s way with the first acts, which come in like frozen lambs. James Perkins ensures the stage’s pillars and ground evoke the more Spartan reaches of Sicily’s twelfth-century cultural mix; though modern city suits rub with formal dresses. This astonishing historical moment of tolerance is the springboard for women speaking as equals and finding patriarchy about to snap. King Leontes’ court balances on his sudden unreason snuffing enlightenment.
Bohemia’s all early modern rustics updated with mobile phones, football shirts, and pedlar Autolycus entering through the groundlings in a mobile market with vinyl EPs as ballads. McIntyre admits Bohemia’s more familiar, best suited to the Globe though difficult to get right. This is the world of Act IV, where an abandoned Sicilian princess grows up a shepherdess and catches the attention of Florizel, the king of Bohemia’s son. It’s a florid burst of youth, renewal, and terminal pollen counts. A harvest table comes on bearing herbs though nothing else. Stephen Warbeck’s sparse and punchy music directed by Robert Millett is allowed a brief flourish too: this time there’s less call for it. As for the Bear, its poster-size face suffers a dropdown of Brechtian alienation. Exit, pursued by flat joke.
Will Keen’s Leontes is a role he’s born to play. A saturnine intensity, the clarity of rationale is all absolute for Leontes and Keen possesses this. The problem is a sun-drenched winter leeches energy from an almost-inaudible first act or so. Priyanga Burford’s noble queen Hermione shows warmth and happy obedience to her husband’s instructions to woo back his friend from childhood, Oliver Ryan’s finely-tuned King Polixenes – who’s about to leave after a seven-month stay. She’s all too successful leading to Leontes’ baseless fabric of suspicion (she’s nine months’ pregnant with her second child), leading him to order poisoning his friend and the quick flight of Poliixenes and counsellor Adrian Bower’s Camillo, who defies Leontes’ commission. Bower too enjoys a clear-voiced individuality and throughout provokes an assurance that with him around, all will turn out well.
And this will have bedded in by the time most see the work. As it is, Keen’s projection seems not yet to have adjusted to the Globe’s acoustic; his vocal quality’s a bit too even, though broken up with sudden emphases on key words of Shakespeare’s astonishing late syntax: ‘barricado for a belly’ is sawn savagely and there’s good reasons behind this not being allowed to settle. Keen replaces some verbal display with physical, acting out much of his rationale, turning on his heel suddenly. He’s still compelling and certainly settles more happily on his return in Act V.
Meanwhile Leontes’ accusations fall on Hermione suddenly; yet Burford here doesn’t startle, skewing her otherwise fine reading – one of warmth and gathering power as she’s accused through Act III. It might be a reading based on imminent birth, and delivered of her child, still in shock, Hermione’s readier and angrier to face her accuser; though it’s still a pivotal moment to underscore. Each of these actors exude inwardness but somehow the chemistry’s not there. Perhaps Sicilia would have been the place to start after all.
It’s with Sirine Saba’s entrance as Paulina, Hermione’s lady-in-waiting, this production takes off. She grabs Leontes and us, perhaps even Hermione by the throat and smites us with outraged innocence and explosive fearlessness – inviting death if necessary. Saba’s verbal and physical energy’s overwhelming. Leontes can’t resist it, entirely, and apart from bringing on her husband Howard Ward’s Antigonus, soon given a wigging too, he’s on the back foot.
But this is where Shakespeare surpasses any audience unprepared for Leontes’ order: the child burnt alive. Keen here raises his foot to crush out her brains. It’s his first great moment, everything tautens to this point. After he refuses the oracles’ proclamation in favour of Hermione, Polixenes and Camillo, terrible retribution and a double death crushes him instead.
Apart from Paulina it’s the moment when the couple’s son – Rose Wardlaw’s Mamilius – screams offstage, this production leaps into another gear. Wardlaw reappears soon after: as strong-voiced but chipper Time beckoning us across sixteen years with similar vocal powers, taking up two other small parts with sassy vocal energy. We miss Paulina for an act but gain not just Wardlaw but Becci Gemmell’s Autolycus the light-fingered pedlar ‘littered under Mercury… a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ who proves pivotal to conveying the right rustics to Bohemia’s court. Gemmell doesn’t overboil, giving Autolycus an acute windblown levity – though her EP vinyl and such trinkets out of Borough market stripes everything else for her as Southwark-born.
Then there’s the now-grown baby, Perdita: Norah Lopez-Holden is both downright and charming. She exudes the inborn grace all fairytale princesses own as of right, matching it with vocal clarity. She’s not as uninhibited as some Perditas, but not coy either. Her warm response to Luke MacGregor’s appealing prince Florizel is clouded only by knowing his impossible rank. It’s something troubling Annette Badland’s skirling-voiced Old Shepherd, and other roles Badland takes; the shepherd laconically eyes a main chance but with a smack of nobility. And a silvery metamorphoses of ‘gentle’ clothes for Badland and her son outbit Gloriana, though it’s 1610.
Indeed it’s the women – Badland, along with Lopez-Holden, Gemmell, Wardlaw and above all Saba who power up this production to approach what the Globe does uniquely. Ward in several roles, Bower, Ryan, MacGregor and the agonized Keen above all project a different energy – though Ward and Bower catch heat and light.
There’s good work too from Zora Bishop (as Emilia particularly, another whose voice cuts through heat haze), and Jordan Metcalfe (winningly hapless as the son, fiddling with his mobile and fearing flaying). Nevertheless the entre cast converges on Sicilia where the penitent Leontes not only pacifies (in turn) the furious Polixenes after his son’s eloped, but his own demons: a daughter and a most lifelike statue.
The poet and Shakespeare scholar Martin Seymour-Smith when asked about the finest Shakespeare plays always maintained that Lear and The Tempest would be two, and The Winter’s Tale was very near The Tempest’s level. That’s not a controversial view. The Winter’s Tale might be (unlike The Tempest) suited for interiors. But it can inhabit wild spaces. There’s the usual groundling-ragging (Autolycus parks his rucksack). But the audience, caught out more by Shakespeare, are hooked.
The final scene where Keen’s redemptive command has sway, quivers with a rougher magic than some, but is undoubtedly there. This will certainly have gathered pace and energy by the time you’ve seen it. If Sicilia and its dense expressive syntax could rise elsewhere, this might be altogether remarkable. As it is, enjoy its slow burn.