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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. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


The Winter's Tale
Cheek By Jowl and YouTube   January 2022

Cheek By Jowl is a London-based touring theatre company that has part-year residences in several European cities, including a season in London's Barbican. This typically crystal-clear, fast-moving but imperfect modern dress production of one of Shakespeare's last plays was recorded in performance at the Barbican in 2017.

(A quick reminder: a man becomes instantly and baselessly obsessed with the conviction his wife has been unfaithful and sets tragic events in motion. Sixteen years later the daughter he denied was his is courted by the son of the man he suspected.)

The Winter's Tale is sometimes labelled one of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays,' the problems being those of directors and actors trying to translate what is clear on the page into effective theatre.

Director Declan Donnellen, designer Nick Ormerod and their actors solve one of the play's big 'problems' inventively and satisfyingly, but are less successful with some of the others.

The first major challenge to any production is making Leontes' instant and overpowering jealousy both believable and not so off-putting as to destroy any empathy with the character. Director Donnellen and actor Orlando James accomplish this by suggesting that we are actually coming in at mid-story.

A silent opening moment of Leontes slowly crumbling in pain, along with fresh staging of the opening scenes, lets us understand that he has been tormented by his suspicions for some time, so they are not starting now but finally bursting out.

Along with clarifying the man's psychology, introducing him as already in agony establishes sympathy for him that carries the audience through his wilder excesses.

The other major challenge to any production of this play is to establish the central scenes those involving the young lovers as different in tone from the Leontes sections, a bright, innocent and happy contrast to the tormented passions of the elder generation.

This is essential both theatrically the audience wants some relief from the gloom and thematically, connecting this play to others as disparate as As You Like It and King Lear in positing nature as a contrast and curative to an oppressive court.

The Bohemia scenes cry out to be brightly lit, festive and coloured by the innocence of youth. But director and designer make these scenes as dimly lit and colourless as the earlier and later ones.

Much of the innocent revelry is cut, and the modern dress elements, hitherto neither positive nor negative, here all have the effect of darkening the tone.

So, instead of being built on a contrast between two worlds that are somehow reconciled at the end, this Winter's Tale is all of a dark and pessimistic piece.

Contributing to this unfortunate misreading of the central scenes is the production's use of a key secondary character. Autolycus, an itinerant pickpocket and conman, wanders into this section of the play being alternately comic and slightly sinister, and many directors have trouble deciding what we are to think about him.

Here actor Ryan Donaldson is directed to be unrelentingly nasty, to the extent of inserting some anachronistic modern dialogue and business that stresses his sadistic side.

I have sometimes seen directors defeated by an attempt to make this character totally innocent and comic, but clearly making him totally malevolent is not the solution.

The dominant performance here is Orlando James's as the tormented Leontes, with strong support from Natalie Radmall-Quirk as his unjustly condemned wife.

The actress takes maternal warmth and calm as her character's keynote. At the moment that Leontes realises how wrong he has been her impulse is to comfort him, and some editing of the play's ending makes the final moment a tableau of her giving her strength and protection to husband and daughter.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of The Winter's Tale - Cheek By Jowl 2022