Michael Cox reviews two productions of Shakespeare's late play, one by Cheek by Jowl (****) and one by the Royal Lyceum Theatre (***).
William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale can be a difficult piece to stage. Being a later play in Shakespeare’s cannon, it contains rich and complex themes, complicated language and contradictory characters. It also contains a difficult plot to digest: its first half is tragedy but the second act steers more towards comedy.
The story centres on Leontes, the King of Sicily. With no evidence, he becomes convinced that his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes—his best friend and King of Bohemia. His blind faith in this false belief leads to tragedy, only for redemption to come 16 years later when the dramatic action moves to Bohemia.
With its changes in tone, diverse locations and challenging staging requirements (including a vital statue and the famed stage direction ‘exeunt, pursued by bear), the play offers directors many creative opportunities in staging the action—opportunities which could easily turn to pitfalls. This isn’t helped by a plot filled with ambiguity and unanswered debates over whether magic is involved.
For some reason, Scotland has found itself blessed with two productions, both of which tackle the play in original ways.
Cheek by Jowl’s touring production recently came to the Citizens Theatre, offering a production that’s strangely subtle for a company known for robust interpretations of classic text. Director Declan Donnellan’s pared-back staging gives far more focus on the text, choosing to create few visual flourishes that nonetheless impress when they come.
But it’s the excellent ensemble that truly stands out here. There is terrific dedication to the treatment of Shakespeare’s language—it comes quickly yet sounds perfectly clear. Orlando James makes for an excellent Leontes, showing his decent into jealous rage with ferocity in the courtroom scene, while Natalie Radmall-Quirke and Joy Richardson equally impress and move as Hermione and Paulina.
With excellent performances and images that linger long after the production ends, this is stirring stuff from start to finish.
Offering a completely different experience is director Max Webster’s production at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. In many ways Webster’s production is the counterpoint to Donnellan’s, for it is the directional concepts that standout most. Bohemia is relocated to a Scottish community, and much of the second half is performed in a Scots dialect (translated here by James Robertson). Meanwhile, the whole production looks scrumptious in its staging and design.
If there is a constant presence it isn’t one of Shakespeare’s creations but Alasdair Macrae, who not only plays a number of characters but also gives live musical accompaniment throughout. The music greatly heightens the dramatic action—not just the songs that play between scenes but also the slight underscore he supplies.
There are many impressive performances throughout. John Michie’s Leontes is a much more subtle character here—his jealousy slightly simmers, only crashing near the end of the first half. Frances Grey also makes for a moving Hermione while Andy Clark teeters between sense and anger as Polixenes. Jimmy Chisholm has the difficult task of making the scoundrel Autolycus into a fun rogue and, for the most part, pulls it off nicely, while Maureen Beattie brings dignified anger to Paulina.
But if there is a flaw, it is found in the very thing that made Cheek by Jowl’s production such a success: it’s treatment of language. The company appear to be wresting with the heightened language of Shakespeare’s text, with many of the wordy scenes coming across as slow-paced and too deliberate. Things do speed up in the prose Scots-sounding second half, but even this feels like it’s a bit too sluggish.
Perhaps with several more runs, the company will be firing on all cylinders, but as it stands now the Lyceum’s production is a terrific looking production that feels a bit start-and-stop in its dramatic action, making for an effective production that is nevertheless too long.
Cheek by Jowl’s production continues its worldwide tour until June 2017. For more information go to their website: www.cheekbyjowl.com.
The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production continues its run until March 4, 2017.