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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE WINTER’S TALE
at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

CHOPPY SEAS
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Emma Noakes and Gavin Fowler/ Ph: Sheila Burnett

There are some unusual images in director Lucy Bailey’s revival of one of Shakespeare’s cruellest and most beautiful plays: Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings) punches his pregnant wife, Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald), right in the stomach, and later lifts a huge sword as if to strike off her head.

The court of Sicilia is a fervid pre-Raphaelite enclave at the top of a huge steel tower, where Leontes and his best friend Polixenes (Adam Levy), the visiting king of Bohemia, lounge among cushions and canopies. The sea laps and sparkles around them, viewed in a projected aerial shot as if from the top of the tower, a great distance away.

That CGS of a sea is omnipresent in William Dudley’s design, turning nasty during the voyage of the abandoned baby and even belching a virtual polar bear that exits pursuing poor old Antigonus (Duncan Wisbey).

It’s at moments like these that I wish such a production would follow its own advice to customers in the programme: “The use of video cameras and any other recording equipment in the theatre is strictly forbidden.” 

By the time the sea’s becalmed, the sheep-shearing is underway, except that Bohemia is transformed into a grimy British coastal resort with a deadpan comedian, Autolycus (Pearce Quigley), a bunch of Morris dancers and a complete view of Leontes’ tower as a brown steel helter-skelter.

And just as the expedition to the Oracle is undertaken by a pair of knicker-bockered Victorian travellers, so the disguised parental deputation from the tower (i.e. Sicily) are intrepid tourists turning up at a working-class seaside hoe-down. They are not so much charmed by Emma Noakes' forthright, emphatically Lancastrian Perdita as swept away by her.

Now Leontes is seen through the other end of the telescope, atop his tower, hysterical and penitential, as befits the perpetrator of such loathsome hieratic behaviour as the trial and torture of his own innocent wife. That arraignment scene is played with brutal passion and power by Tara Fitzgerald, and these areas of the play are as strong as they were in the RSC’s last production with Greg Hicks and Kelly Hunter.

But the tumult of visual ideas, some better than others, creates an uncertain overall aesthetic, and excesses that are merely ludicrous, such as the tumbling of bodies through the sea on the videotape and the misfired sight gags of musicians materialising in Autolycus’s Punch and Judy tent.

That tent prefigures the unveiling of the statue in the last act and, while I have seen more magical unravelling, there is a resonating sense of justice in the unfreezing of an artistic totem in this sexually fixated hothouse.

At his recent inaugural press conference as the RSC’s new artistic director, Gregory Doran said that he differed from his predecessor Michael Boyd in wanting the ensemble to include “leading actors.” (He also said that he would produce the entire canon on the main Stratford stage over the next five years and re-dedicate the Swan to the Jacobethan and Restoration repertoire). 

His explanation for this was simply that Shakespeare wrote “hierarchically.” In The Winter’s Tale this seems less important; all the same, Stone-Fewings is convincingly regal, in a spoilt brattish sort of way, and Fitzgerald certainly proves that treating her with less majesty is lèse majesté. But the casting is rather thin by the time you get round to Rakie Ayola’s monotone Paulina, David Shaw-Parker’s tediously extravagant Old Shepherd and Daniel Bett’s dull Camillo.

There needs to be a big shake-up. And as each production is more or less cast separately, why do any of them have to be specifically belonging to the RSC? Michael Boyd saved the company. Gregory Doran now needs to define it.

 


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