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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Winter's Tale
Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC iPlayer  April 2021

Barred from live performances, the Royal Shakespeare Company created this production of The Winter's Tale for BBC4. It is now available on BBC iPlayer.

The Winter's Tale is a play of three thirds, and it is rare to encounter a production that does equal justice to all three parts. This one is brilliant in the first, poor in the second and adequate in the third.

Reminder: King Leontes becomes suddenly convinced his queen is unfaithful with his best friend and orders the deaths of both and of the baby he believes a bastard.

Friend and baby separately escape, and sixteen years later the young girl, her identity unknown, falls in love with the friend's son. A final movement brings everyone back together for reunions, reconciliations and rewards.

Director Erica Whyman and actor Joseph Kloska collaborate to produce one of the finest portraits of Leontes I've ever encountered.

This is a man suddenly and frighteningly possessed by a monster of jealousy – something apart from but within him – that frightens even him.

I have seen angrier Kings and more confidently self-righteous ones (and both characterisations worked), but never one in so much pain – not only from his dark imaginings but from his helplessness in trying to resist or escape them. Joseph Kloska rushes about the stage as if trying to run away from himself.

Kloska is matched in power by Kemi-Bo Jacobs as the Queen, making her as secure in her knowledge of her innocence as the King is panicking in his suspicions.

In the key trial scene she creates drama in stillness by staring down the court, the king and the TV camera with the absolute authority of outraged innocence.

And then things start to go wrong. Faced with one of the most infamous stage diections in world drama – one character “Exits, pursued by a bear” - director Whyman gives up and tries something symbolic that is just incoherent.

The modern dress, which hadn't bothered us much in the formal court scenes, begins to get more than a little silly when the itinerant con artist Autolycus appears on a motorcycle.

Autolycus is a difficult role – the play wants him as a commenting chorus figure while also using him for comic relief – but Anne Odeke is the dreariest Autolycus I've ever seen, every single gag or witticism falling flat.

Assad Zaman and particularly Georgia Landers are attractive as the young lovers, but the whole central section of the play, meant to convey the innocence and health-giving power of nature and the pastoral life, just lies there lifelessly.

Things pick up for the last sequence, primarily through the return of Joesph Kloska's Leontes and Amanda Hadingue as his moral counsellor.

But – and I am sure this is deliberate – the bittersweet happy ending is somewhat tempered by having Kemi-Bo Jacobs's Hermione (for yes – spoiler alert – the Queen lives) play the final seconds with a totally in-character coolness.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Winter's Tale - RSC Spring 2021