sat 21/09/2019

The Winter's Tale, RSC/Roundhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Winter's Tale, RSC/Roundhouse

The Winter's Tale, RSC/Roundhouse

Passions to warm the coldest night in this Shakespearean romance

Hear no evil: Greg Hicks as LeontesAlessandro Evangelista

A night when a fresh fall of snow was fluttering from the heavens could hardly have felt more fitting for the opening of this Shakespearean romance – particularly since David Farr’s production for the RSC, first seen in Stratford in 2009, so felicitously counters fire with ice. Cruelty and rage, the willful closing off of the heart, the reawakening of hope and the resurrection of enduring love: passion both kills and sustains in the worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia; and if the staging sometimes seems slightly ponderous, it delivers moments of arresting intensity.

Sicilia, under the chilly rule of Greg Hicks’s Leontes, is a state of discipline and military might. Two towering bookshelves laden with weighty tomes guard its central entrance on Jon Bausor’s imposing design, lit in smoky shafts by Jon Clark. Braided uniforms and dark formal frockcoats rub shoulders; this is an imposing, masculine environment, even at its most festive, where little princeling Mamillius himself wears a paper crown from a cracker and where the warm sensuality of Kelly Hunter’s Hermione is dangerously conspicuous. And yet, Hunter powerfully suggests, the attentions she pays to Darrell D’Silva’s Bohemian ruler Polixenes are in part, at least, performed out of a sense of duty. Alone with her women and her son, the heavily pregnant queen shows decided signs of strain. Ironically, it is in doing her utmost as her husband’s political and diplomatic helpmeet – as well as in her role as loyal wife – that she has undone herself.

Hicks’s self-inflicted torment is acute. Keith Clouston’s score fills his head with a high-pitched whining as his suspicions take possession of him, and we watch him struggle with his jealousy, desperately attempting to shake it off, then rebounding into tortured justification, his slender body taut with watchful paranoia. As for Hunter, she is magnificent in her dignity and anger when, falsely accused, she is dragged before the court in her soiled nightgown, bloodstained and still weak from childbirth. And Noma Dumezweni’s statuesque Paulina is furiously forceful without ever becoming shrill or histrionic.

RSC_Winters_Tale_Roundhouse_HermioneLeontesThe thunderous collapse of the bookshelves plunges Sicilia into a papery blizzard of desolation; and, in Bohemia, the visual motif is maintained, with a giant paper bear puppet seeing off the hapless Antigonus, who here dies protecting baby Perdita, and a pastoral glade of trees with text-covered paper leaves. With the teenage Perdita and her lover, Prince Florizel, entwined among the branches, there’s a riotous satyr dance in which the performers, clad in ribbons of paper and huge scarlet-tipped phalluses, prance and whoop around the young couple. It’s a striking combination of the dionysiac and the English folk tradition of the maypole.

The rustics at this pheromone-charged feast are faintly cod, though there’s an entertaining turn from Brian Doherty as the rogue Autolycus, a boozy, rough-sleeping petty crim in tatty raincoat and prison-issue longjohns, rollie dangling from his lip. But it’s only when we’re back in Sicilia, for the strangest and most shattering of family reunions, that Farr’s production reasserts its compulsion. Dumezweni’s Paulina manages the scene of revelation that she has secretly contrived (pictured above right) – when the agonised Leontes is confronted with what he believes to be a statue of Hermione, only to see her come back to life before his wondering gaze – with beautiful compassion and delicacy. And the reconnecting of Hunter and Hicks – as well as Hunter’s tremulous meeting with her grown-up daughter – are tentative, and then flooded with emotion.

Only for Autolycus – excluded from the celebrations and left, in the final stage image, outside in the dark beneath the falling snow – does the cruelly biting cold that whistles through the tragic scenes persist. A reminder, perhaps, that even under its reformed ruler, Sicilia can still be a pitiless place. Still, the emotional resolution is not so undercut that it does not leave a lasting glow. It should warm the coldest winter’s night.

Kelly Hunter as Hermione is magnificent in her dignity and anger, dragged before the court, bloodstained and still weak from childbirth

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