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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Roundhouse


David Farr’s production of Shakespeare’s tricky, emotionally wrenching play begins with a deceptively festive air. Around an Edwardian candlelit table, the court of Leontes assemble for a Christmas dinner. But this is no light-hearted celebration. This room, thick with leather and mahogany, is heavy with the stench of power, no more poignantly sign posted than when Leontes’ doomed young son Mamillius playfully pulls a paper crown onto his head. And pretty quickly this carefully built edifice has catastrophically crumbled, as Leontes, in paroxysms of jealousy, arrests his wife on suspicion of adultery and his heavily loaded bookshelves come crashing down, Ozymandias style, in clouds of rubble.
Greg Hicks will never top a poll for the most charismatic Shakespearean actor, but he excels as Leontes. His delivery, as tightly buttoned as his frock coat, not only yields a dazzling, unexpected clarity, but his performance recasts the scene as a thrilling psychological study in jealousy as an all-consuming form of illness.
This is no man high on an uncontrollable fury but writhing in agony on the lethal surety of his conviction, and Kelly Hunter’s heavily pregnant Hermione demonstrates precisely why thoughts of her infidelity might unhinge Leontes so completely – exuding a warm, dignified, intelligent sensuality even as she pleads for her life. It’s a desperate first act, dramatised with a rare, galvanising focus, and Farr’s masterstroke is to make Leontes’ mad, paranoid psychosis horribly real.
This is a play full of abrupt contrasts – of winter and summer, darkness and light, separation and reconciliation – and Farr’s production accentuates the play’s almost absurd changing of gears as it moves into the balmy, hazy fantasia of Bohemia. Where Sicily was sleek, barely restrained power and sobriety, here of course is all lighthearted frivolity, presided over by Brian Doherty’s derelict, tinkerish Autolycus, complete with missing teeth and thieving sense of humour.
Farr makes somewhat laboured use of the paper that came drifting down like snow from the bookshelves at the end of the Sicily scenes – in Bohemia it’s the main visual prop, conjured into trees and costumes, and even into a massive puppet paper bear – who happily eats up poor Antigonus on stage. If words and paper signified learning and power in Sicily, here they perhaps suggest the imaginative suspension of disbelief in this wildly romantic, strange pastoral idyll.
Samantha Jones intriguingly subverts the usual incarnation of Perdita as sweet and pretty by being flighty and prickly, although, that said, it’s hard to warm to her; she is also sometimes inaudible. And as ever with The Winter’s Tale, you feel you are biding time in Bohemia, waiting impatiently to return back to the emotional testing ground of Sicily and its promise of closure and absolution. Happily the production regains its footing here, Hicks now cowering in a blanket amid the wreckage of his life and kingdom, before his unreasoned willfulness is eventually gracefully redeemed. It’s as rewarding as the scenes that led to this: Hunter deliberately very gradually coming to life, the slow pace of their coming together in rich and satisfying contrast to the speed with which Leontes wrenched them apart.

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