The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have filed our reviews of several London productions of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or browse.
NT 2001 - RSC 2002 - Old Vic 2009 - RSC 2010 - Propeller 2012 - Garrick 2015
Olivier Theatre, Spring-Summer 2001
Nicholas Hytner's new production of Shakespeare's late romance is absolutely superb for three-quarters of its length, so very fine that one is willing to forgive a dreadful drop in quality in the middle.
The play itself breaks into three barely-related sections. King Leontes is suddenly overwhelmed by jealousy, certain on no evidence that his queen is unfaithful with his best friend, a neighbouring king. He prosecutes her, orders her newborn daughter to be sent to her death, and then is overwhelmed with remorse when the queen, now dead as well, is proven innocent. Sixteen years later the daughter, raised by shepherds, meets the son of that neighbouring king, and the couple help bring about the reunion of the fathers and the revelation that the wronged queen is still alive.
Hytner's production startles you even before it begins, as Ashley Martin-Davis's set puts us in an elegant modern penthouse, and the setting anchors the play in a solid contemporary realism. The first challenge facing any production is to make Leontes' instantaneous jealousy believable, and Alex Jennings makes it work better than any other Leontes I've seen.
Jennings gives a subtle and
textured performance, something of a surprise from this actor who often
works in broad strokes. His king might at first be a captain of
industry, doing business with one ear while entertaining at an elegant
party. What he thinks he sees when not really paying close attention - a
hint of intimacy between his wife and friend - knocks him for a loop, in
a totally believable way.
Jennings' double revelation is to fight the oncoming of jealousy rather than rush into it, and to play the scene for pain rather than anger. As a result, we both recognize and sympathize - the man's whole world has been shaken by this seeming loss, and he is the victim of his own error rather than the monster too many actors find.
The performances around him are equally layered and real. Claire Skinner turns the queen from a casually elegant hostess to a woman with the power of absolute dignity when wronged. while Deborah Findlay plays Paulina, the queen's chief defender and later guardian of the king's repentance, as Elaine Stritch, the hard-edged society matron with a surprising core of humanity.
And then the play loses its way for 40 minutes or so. The Bohemia scenes, involving the romance of the young couple, are set in a hippie encampment at a rock festival. Autolycus, Shakespeare's petty thief, is now a Dylanesque folk singer and part-time drug dealer who pauses the action for a rap song sampling Shakespeare's greatest hits, and all the charm Phil Daniels brings to the role can't save this section from sinking into frantic but lifeless dreariness.
The best that can be said of the Bohemia section is that it is very, very silly but mercifully short. The worst is that the actors playing the young couple (I'll not name them) are severely personality-challenged, so that the sense this section is supposed to give of young love and a new generation bringing renewal to their parents' world simply isn't there.
What is, when we get back to Leontes' court for the final act, is a return to the very high standards of the opening acts, as Alex Jennings shows us the modulated pain of a man who has lived intimately with sorrow for so many years that it is almost comfortable, and he and Findlay capture something that I've too rarely seen actors realize - that the long shared grief of Leontes and Paulina is one of the strongest emotional bonds of the play.
That Nicholar Hytner knows this is
evident in the staging and body language he guides his actors to in the
final scene. Watch carefully as, without altering a word of Shakespeare,
he makes it perfectly clear (and absolutely believable) which
relationships will survive this adventure and which won't.
It is one of those great moments of rediscovery that make going back to Shakespeare's plays again and again worthwhile, and it will enable you to leave the theatre with charitable forgiveness for that silly lapse in the middle.
The Roundhouse, Autumn 2002
The Royal Shakespeare Company's first production at the Roundhouse gets off to a rocky start, but develops into one of the most emotionally satisfying productions of this difficult play that I've ever seen. Those willing to sit through a lifeless first half-hour will find their patience well rewarded.
This is the one about the king who suddenly becomes convinced his wife is being unfaithful with the king next door. She dies, it seems, and their daughter is left to perish, but 16 years later the girl, miraculously saved, falls for the son of the neighbour king, leading eventually to multiple reconciliations, etc, etc.
For no particular reason, director Matthew Warchus has set the play in 1950s America, with Sicilia a sophisticated urban court and Bohemia an Ozark hillbilly community. This does absolutely nothing to illuminate or invigorate the play, but it's harmless enough, and there are a few hints that the setting has helped some actors toward their characterisations.
(It goes without saying that the American accents are all atrocious. As Leontes, Douglas Hodge seems to be striving for a neutral northern California sound, but keeps straying into a southern accent, while Rolf Saxon's supposedly Ozark Polixenes travels from Texas to Brooklyn and back in the course of a single sentence and Lauren Ward's Perdita is more deep Mississippi than Ozark. And some of the updating doesn't work either, like turning Antigonus from a gentleman of the court into a curiously uppity chauffeur.)
Like most actors playing Leontes, Douglas Hodge can make little sense of his sudden jealousy, though you might be too distracted by the really bad impersonation of John Malkovich he affects in the opening scene to notice. But once he gets going, the king's passion and torment become fully believable and deeply moving, so that we never forget that this misguided tyrant is harming himself at least as much as anyone else.
Anastasia Hille is a particularly wooden Hermoine in the opening scene, but she too gets much better, with her trial scene particularly powerful. (If the modern dress led her to being able to play the wrongly-accused queen with a mix of haggard fatalism and twentieth-century assertiveness, it justified itself right there.) Myra Lucretia Taylor, also adopting a modern characterisation, makes a strong Paulina.
The Bohemia scenes, involving the young lovers, illustrate what I think of as the Franco Zeffirelli law, inspired by his truly major discovery about Romeo and Juliet 40 years ago: if the actor and actress can convey youth, charm and a sense of really being in love, then they don't have to be able to read the lines especially well. Lauren Ward and Alan Turkington convey more just with their presence than with their acting - she in particular has some of the same fragile ingenue charm that the young Imogen Stubbs wowed us with at her RSC debut two decades ago.
The modern setting does get the production through one of Shakespeare's most awkward patches, the string of messengers reporting on offstage action near the end of the play, here cleverly and effectively condensed into a radio news report. The final act, with its magical reunions and reconciliations, will leave you misty-eyed, an altogether appropriate finale to what will have been an almost fully satisfying emotional journey.
Oh, and the bear (of "Exit, pursued by a..." fame) is the best I've ever seen.
The Winter's Tale
Old Vic Theatre Summer 2009
The Bridge Project is a Sam Mendes-directed repertory company made up of British and North American actors, with the twin homes of the Old Vic in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Their current season alternates two plays built on regret for passing time, Shakespeare's Winter's Tale and Chekhov's Cherry Orchard.
While there is great pleasure in seeing the same actors in different roles, particularly on the same day, if you can only see one, choose The Winter's Tale. Mendes and his cast catch all the play's differing moods with equal warmth and richness, something that productions of this divided play rarely achieve.
This is the one about the king whose sudden mad jealousy seems to kill his queen and his baby daughter, though when we jump ahead sixteen years we discover the girl living as a simple shepherdess, eventually to be reunited with her parents in a magical conclusion.
You may have spotted two problems there already - the king's abrupt jealousy comes out of nowhere and risks destroying any sympathy we may have for him, and the leap in time and place from the court to the countryside creates two entirely different worlds and tones. Many productions get one half of the play or the other right, but far too few can balance both.
And Mendes and his cast triumph over both obstacles.
I have always admired Simon Russell Beale's ability to find the ageing chubby little man in every role he plays. I mean that as the highest compliment, in that he uses his instrument - his body - to illuminate qualities in his characters other actors miss. Here he quietly and subtly explains the king's madness in a way that is as touching as it is believable.
Like Othello in a similar situation, this Leontes simply finds it easier to believe that his younger wife would be drawn to his handsome friend than that she could love him. The king's chagrin and guilt when he is proven wrong are then mixed with his full understanding of the value of the gift he had not appreciated, going far to retain our sympathy.
There are other strong performances as well in this half of the play, with Rebecca Hall leaving no doubt of the queen's innocence in the openness and good sense she conveys in every line, and with Sinead Cusack building the character of Paulina on a foundation of absolute love and devotion to the queen.
Meanwhile, the youthful and joy-filled Bohemia scenes that take up the middle half of the play are equally successful in equally fresh ways. Mendes and his design team have set the play a little over a century ago, and if the court scenes have a late Victorian air, Bohemia is frontier America in the middle of a country hoe-down. That may sound silly, but it works, nicely capturing the innocence, freshness and curative quality of this alternative world.
Michael Braun and Morven Christie are all you could ask for as the young lovers, and Richard Easton is thoroughly charming as the Old Shepherd. But acting honours here go to Ethan Hawke in the challenging role of the rogue Autolycus.
Like many of Shakespeare's clowns, this conman-troubador too often seems to go on too long and too uncomically for modern tastes. But Hawke dips into his bag of shtick, and comes up with enough voices, accents, mini-characterisations and comic bits of business to keep us happily entertained - and, not incidentally, to contribute to the essential sense of innocence and happiness in this Mild West Bohemia.
And I must add that, for the first time in my several experiences of this play, the magical ending had me moist-eyed - further evidence of this production's success in meeting all the challenges of the play and delivering a wholly soul-satisfying experience.
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Roundhouse Winter 2010-2011
Shakespeare's late romance is a broken-backed play that starts in one mode, changes completely for the middle acts, and then returns to the original setting and tone, and it is not uncommon for a production to be more successful with one part of it than the other.
That's what happens in Edward Hall's version for Propeller.
The opening, a dark play about a man struck with an insane fit of jealousy that destroys everyone around him, is very powerful, and the return to that plot at the end is marred only by some clumsy staging. The middle section, a light romantic comedy that will eventually provide the resolution to the outer story, is a bit of a disaster.
Take a long nap in the middle of the evening, and you will see what's best about this Winter's Tale.
Edward Hall and his actors begin well, even meeting one of the play's biggest challenges, making Leontes' sudden and overpowering conviction that his wife has been unfaithful, make sense.
Robert Hands doesn't make it happen instantly, but takes the man through the painful stages of first getting the inkling of the idea and then talking himself into the very thoughts that are a torment to imagine. This isn't just believable, but sympathetic, since this Leontes is first and foremost a man in pain, and only secondarily an irrational avenger.
Propeller is an all-male company, and the actors, many of whom return year after year, have mastered the art and skill of playing women without a hint of camp. Richard Dempsey invests the unjustly accused queen Hermione with a mature dignity that leaves no doubt about her innocence while helping us see why the thought of losing her could drive her husband mad. And as Paulina, the queen's chief defender, Vince Leigh creates a powerful voice of moral outrage who is never unfeminine.
After this very strong start, the play jumps ahead sixteen years to find the baby Leontes ordered killed grown into a shepherd girl in love with exactly the right man to help the play resolve itself by the end.
The middle section is meant to be a romantic comedy, light and celebratory in tone, but here it is leaden, unfunny and dreary. Almost uniquely among Propeller actors, Ben Allen is unable to create a believable female character or to invest her with any lightness or charm, so the rom-com scenes all die.
Meanwhile director Hall and designer Michael Pavelka imagine a country fair to be a modern rock festival, and the translation just does not work. Turning Shakespeare's folk ballads into rock songs and his country lasses into Essex girls might be possible, but not this time.
The con man Autolycus is, I grant, one of Shakespeare's drearier clowns, but Tony Bell makes him so actively unpleasant that you can't wait for the character to get offstage.
Generally speaking, everyone is too visibly trying too hard to be jolly in this central section, and that visible work is, of course, the death of lightness and comedy.
Things pick up when they get serious again in the last act, with the strange sort of marriage-in-shared-grief between Leontes and Paulina movingly evoked. And then director Hall loses his touch again, just by staging the final scene so awkwardly that it is not at all clear exactly what is happening or what relationships are being established or re-established.
Of the two plays in Propeller's current season, the Henry V is much more successful, though there might be just barely enough in the frame scenes to this Winter's Tale to make it worth seeing.
Garrick Theatre Winter 2015-2016
Producer-director-actor Kenneth Branagh and his company begin a year's residency at the Garrick Theatre with an uneven production of Shakespeare's late romance, one whose merits don't quite balance out its weaknesses.
Foremost among its strengths are the performances of Branagh himself as the king whose sudden fit of insane jealousy sets tragic events in motion, and Judi Dench as the court lady who serves as his scourge and conscience.
A central problem facing any actor and director is that Leontes functions as a villain in the opening scenes and yet (small spoiler alert) is given something like a happy ending that he might not seem to deserve. I've seen many attempts at solutions, some more successful than others.
Branagh's way is to introduce Leontes as an attractive, sympathetic figure from the start and then play his jealousy as a madness that suddenly overpowers him and just as quickly disappears, so that we see the madness as villain and the man as victim.
Even at his wildest, Branagh's Leontes never loses our sympathy, and when, after the action moves elsewhere for a while, he reappears deeply repentant for what he was driven to do way back then, we can feel that he has earned forgiveness.
Judi Dench, as you might expect, invests Paulina with a solid reality and depth of feeling, but also with an unexpected ironic humour, as she finds in speeches others have skipped over a bemused exasperation at the general stupidity of men.
Dench also doubles as the chorus figure of Time, helping to give a unity to a play that sometimes threatens to break apart into separate plot lines.
It is in that other plot line that this production stumbles. While Leontes is offstage regretting his actions, the central hour of the play follows the daughter he thinks is dead as she grows up and has a romance and adventure of her own.
Those middle scenes are meant to be a contrast to the framing plot, as the healthy vitality of youth and a pastoral setting offer a curative force to the court's ills (a favourite theme of Shakespeare's – see As You Like It).
But co-directors Branagh and Rob Ashford, and designer Christopher Oram, give the sequence an autumnal brownness that is even darker than the court, and neither the young lovers (Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman) nor the comic rogue (John Dagleish) are able to generate much joy or sense of health-giving youth.
What should be the brightest and happiest part of the play turns out to have the least life in it. So this Winter's Tale is an ambiguous start to the Branagh Company's year in the West End, suggesting both strengths and limits.
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