FringeReview UK 2023
An enormously satisfying reading that happens to be groundbreaking. It’s Sean Holmes’ finest production yet.
Musicians: Composer/Musical Director Laura Moody – Cello/Percussion/Guitar/ Viola/Vocals; Richard Jones Percussion/Vocals
Director Sean Holmes, Designer Grace Smart, Assistant Director Roberta Zuric, Movement Tamsin Hurtado Clarke
Costume Supervisor Jackie Orton, Text Consultant Simon Trinder, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Seasonal Voice Coach Katherine Heath, Candle Consultant Anna Watson. Head of Stage Bryan Paterson, Head of Wardrobe Emma Lucy-Hughes, Head of Company Management Marion Marrs, Head of Props Emma Hughes, Stage Manager Sophie Dalton, DSM Martha Mamo, ASM Georgia Rose, Casting Becky Paris. Producer Tamara Moore.
Till April 15th
Ayckbourn it ain’t. Yet the most innovative Globe staging yet does justice to the Shakespeare play that cries out for two stages: The Winter’s Tale starts and ends in the Wanamaker’s mint-green Sicilia, by way of the outdoor Globe’s Bohemia for a super-relaxed, super-rackety hour of Act IV.
It further emphasises the work’s radically split atmosphere: claustrophobic tragedy and as Perdita declares in the rain: “The selfsame sun that shines upon his court /Hides not his visage from our cottage, but/Looks on all alike.” Seasonally, a late summer harvest gets buffeted by rude March squalls, but let umbrellas on your imaginary forces work. And Laura Moody’s atmospherically dissonant viola and cello duet in the Wanamaker, with percussive junketing outside.
Director Sean Holmes lets the text work too – opening out cuts normally de rigeur and allowing reports normally dissevered to flourish in the most complete, satisfying Tale I’ve seen for a long time. Those who use the wasp’s-nest test (wait for that) will cheer. This decision breathes freshness too, releasing the play’s redemptive heart in a unique manner – as audiences are shepherded between stages and tarry grumpily in gouts of rain to be let into shelter. Twitted last year as ‘sawn-off Sean’ for his (and director Diane Page’s) tendency to truncate endings with extreme prejudice, Holmes offers here a reading that despite one or two casting quiddities, builds to a moving climax, where the ending really tells.
Both stages centre a feast, emphasising the implicit hospitality or festival moments that drive the plot. Grace Smart’s Wanamaker set below its mint-green décor and Anna Watson’s often raked candles, is ablaze with a feasting table: the Wanamaker’s often featured one especially post-lockdown. The close too is handled with a Tenebrae that’s almost claustral – the sacramental and sackcloth have suffused Sicilia by the time we get back in the closing moments of this three-hours-fifteen.
Outside it’s a different yard, a crash of heterogenous chairs lapping a bench: possibly Autolycus’ backyard as he whistles Steptoe & Son wearing a Dellboy chain. But it’s not Autolycus’ land: he’s a familiar, yet invader. The lack of pastoral jars.
Holmes doesn’t let the dinner party rest static, and with the emphasis on “paddling palms” gesture and musical chairs force the royal trio to a restless re-positioning. Leontes jealously takes against his boyhood friend Polixenes – who he’s just enjoined his wife Hermione to stay yet another week, yet baselessly suspects of adultery. Dynamics though are quite skewed.
Holmes ensures too some creepy gestures, as Leontes, say, rests his head on another’s shoulders in intimate menace. It’s a unique hallmark lending a further measure of distinction to Holmes’ production.
Hermione (Bea Segura) is commanding. Both in obedient entreaties to Polixenes, and later outrage, dignified defence of her faithfulness following accusation and eventually trial. “The emperor of Russia was my father” she declares with royal scorn. You believe her. Anyone who saw her last year in Henry VIII as Catherine the daughter of the King of Spain will remember how she centred, really dominated and (with the music) was that production. Segura finds the same truth here magnificently: “Tell me what blessings I have here alive,/That I should fear to die?”
Happily Segura isn’t the only ringing voice. Though Leontes (Sergo Vares) may seem less than her peer, Vares’ experience in physical theatre allows the squirmy discomfiture of this role to blossom. Though why he stays in his underwear sixteen years later when guests arrive argues for a greater, unaddressed trauma than either the play or his performance warrants. Vares isn’t a ringing Leontes, but a quieter-voiced one, suggesting a more psychotic personality. He gestures beautifully, but he’s up against Segura and can’t tyrant it with her. His lines – like much of Acts I-III for the sake of that extended Act IV – are cut. No barricado for a belly. But enough of Leontes, and his interactions with Mamillius (George Robinson, playing a slightly numbed boy) survive. And his emphases too, if a little underpowered, fall right.
Polixenes (John Lightbody) is usually an emollient character under Leontes’ salt so to speak. So when cast as a reasonable equable friend it seems curious he should betray the same paroxysms sixteen years later. Lightbody – who would seem ideal for Leontes – proves inspirational. His role for the most part flourishes in Act IV; his ringing tones, after purring sibilant-seeming approval of the feast, chill as much as thrill. His like Segura’s is a definitive performance. His bear-like voice in the Wanamaker earlier proves him of similar, if less twisted mettle to Leontes. A common upbringing you feel makes tyrants of them both.
Autolycus (Ed Gaughan) bestrides Act IV too. Earlier Gaughan makes a believable, sick-hearted Antigonus torn apart after a lot of Keystone-Cops chase-about with a Bear (it mutely protests too much, standing patiently next to its victim till noticed, but a delightful crowd-pleaser). As quip-rich Autolycus Gaughan skirls snatches of song, so we lose the lines around being littered under Mercury, and Shakespeare’s own songs, but this is otherwise the wittiest, most complete Autolycus I’ve seen.
Details of his cozening are tricked out with physical comedy and contemporary ad-libs, but the wonder is we get so much. Not only that, elements of Autolycus’ later speech – his embroidered tortures waiting the shepherds, his equivocations through Act IV and V into the Wanamaker (amends unusually made too) make absolute sense. Most, his working the crowd with song and dance is Autolycus’ essence. It’s been done, though never so completely, with comic self-reflexiveness.
Paulina (Nadine Higgin) is capable of low throbbing notes of wrath, a voice withheld only to roar furies and hold back, full of terraced invective. Higgin might lack the small sad sidelights of some Paulinas – though not the stillness – but is wholly believable. There’s a vivid cameo as Time too, full of dispatch and mischief. Camillo (Beruce Khan) is a wrench of conscience. His expression on Leontes’ order to poison Polixenes, or later, in the aftermath of Polixenes’ own wrath, is of a man forever taking leave of comfort, plunged to exile. His plots and homecoming suggest genuine release.
We’re equally lucky with Old Shepherd (Colm Gormley) a vivid and resilient man in Gormley’s active performance, vocally relishing the “stairwork” or “thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born” through to his confrontation with royalty. He can’t express defiance to Polixenes, but everywhere you sense the upbringing he’s given his foundling daughter explains much. Young Shepherd (Samuel Creasey) is a study of hapless voicing, a clownish groping towards the way he finally deals with Autolycus, up to the point with gentleman-like tears – all rendered here.
Perdita (Jacoba Williams) is lyrically appealing, sharply-aware (nailing those lines quoted above), spirited. In this relationship with Florizel (Sarah Slimani) there’s no bacchanalian dance crowning the Wanamaker’s production of 2016, no sexual eagerness. Holmes tames all to the feast’s decorum, the declaration itself – with the People of Bohemia (a rotating cast of 24) – sensation enough. They’re surrounded by these People dancing ancient deer-heads more out of Scandinavian and Windsor Forest rites than Bohemia, but it’s satisfying. Williams is both at home in Bohemia and touchingly reverent in Sicilia in the final scene.
Slimani’s at her finest there too. Her voice blossoms in the Wanamaker with greater subtlety and bearing than the blustery outdoors, and you get more of why Perdita’s attracted – this Perdita’s not impressed by princes.
Whilst some subtleties and the uncoiling of Leontes’ jealousy are shorn (along with the pastoral), and the sheer degradation of Hermione’s imprisonment and snatching of Mamillius from her too, this is nevertheless an enormously satisfying reading that happens to be groundbreaking. It’s Sean Holmes’ finest production yet.