Friday, 8 February 2013

It is a heretic that makes the fire, / Not she who burns in't.

Seeing The Winter's Tale is always quite an experience: it's a play every bit as mad and magical as you could reasonably expect from lines like, "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins", and the infamous "Exit pursued by a bear." Perhaps unfortunately, the current RSC Tale team have opted to dispense with said bear (unless you count a passing mention supposed to occur after the event), rather than trying to get around the gnarly problem of how to represent it. Still, there's certainly magic enough in't - this is a really beautiful production, with wonderful costumes, sets and acting. As ever, the reawakening of Hermione was the plays most magical moment: there are, after all, few scenes in Shakespeare more spectacular than this. It's a wonderfully weird scene, and the fact that actresses manage to pull it off at all will, I'm sure, never cease to amaze.

As the programme tells us in some detail, The Winter's Tale is (especially by Renaissance standards) a fascinatingly gynocentric play: the three characters with whom we have the greatest sympathy are all women. That's not to say that all the men are as petty and over-indulged as Leontes or Polixenes: both of Paulina's husbands (Antigonus and Camillo) must naturally prove themselves worthy of her affections, which we can see are far from easy to win. But in the end, it's Paulina herself who steals the show, saving the day with some incredibly bold stunts. It's not difficult to see why a play like this would appeal to a female director, and Lucy Bailey in general does a great job.

Personally I felt there was a slight problem with pacing: for me, the first half felt a lot longer than the second. One of the things I found most annoying about some of the scenes in Sicilia was their tendency towards melodrama. I'll accept that this is probably a problem inherent in the text itself, and not an easy one to get around. Yet, funnily enough, it wasn't really an issue in what are probably the play's most naturally melodramatic moments, such as Leontes' railing and threats to kill everyone who disagrees with him, and Hermione's desperate speech at her sham of a trial. In fact, it was only noticeable when there was less going on onstage - it was most striking when the rest of the cast were called on to respond to pieces of news. Most of all, I didn't like all the silly shrieking and screaming of the other ladies at court whenever a kind of "mass horror" reaction was required. Not only did it feel too much like this was just a way of filling a space and giving those other cast members something to do, but it also crossed the line into ridiculousness, damaging our suspension of disbelief. The only other thing that bothered me slightly about the play was that there didn't really seem to be any consensus on the particular nothern accent that was being aimed at: Perdita sounded quite different and distinct from her adopted family. This may well be because some of the accents were natural and others weren't - I don't know how hard some of them had to work at it - but it's not the first time I've been left wondering whether, in the end, a dialect coach can really teach people very much. The only real way to pick up an accent, I think, is to go to a place and listen to the locals - you do it then almost without trying. But that's a minor quibble, really. It's also worth mentioning that I saw the show very early in it's run, so there's a big possibility that things will still change and improve a lot yet.

On the other hand, there was plenty to like - even love - about this production. I loved the joyousness of the dancing and revelry, and the recasting of the Young Shepherd and his squabbling admirers as holidaymaking chavs. Their singalong with Autolycus was laugh-out-loud funny, his bawdy humour translated into end-of-the-pier style comedy. I'll admit I had been hoping for a slightly stronger musical presence, since I knew about Jon Boden's involvement beforehand, and I'm a massive fan of his, but I suppose it wouldn't have done for the music to take over from the action. The use of costume throughout the second half was brilliant: even as things began to get more serious, once Perdita and Florizel had run away, we were permitted the light relief of the two of them appearing at the Sicilian Court, him with a coat over his morris dancing gear and her with a dress tucked into men's pantaloons and a scarf over her face in an attempt to seem more "Eastern". In comparison to the first half, the second seemed to fly by - I could happily have watched more! As usual, too, the design was fantastic, and I was especially impressed by Leontes' ivory tower-cum-desolate lighthouse.

In terms of acting, Rakie Ayola, Emma Noakes and Tara Fitzgerald positively sparkled as, respectively, Paulina, Perdita and Hermione, and Jo-Stone Fewings made a great job of a far from desirable part. He managed to bring real pathos and powerful emotional shifts to the role, moving convincingly from fury to despair to utter joy at his wife's return. As a character, Leontes shows himself up as such a shallow and callous character early on in the play, that for any actor playing him to then go on and win our sympathies in this way is really no mean feat. Others that I felt stood out were Duncan Wisbey as Antigonus, Nick Holder as the Young Shepherd, and Pearce Quigley as everyone's favourite, Autolycus. I'd actually seen Quigley not too long ago in a Shakespeare's Globe production of Doctor Faustus, so was thrilled as soon as I saw him come on stage: his comic timing is immaculate.

Overall then, a lovely play, just perfect for chasing away those wintry post-Christmas blues.

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