Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Winter's Tale - RSC at Theatre Royal, Newcastle

The Winter’s Tale
Writer: William Shakespeare
Director:David Farr
Reviewer:Ian Cain

The RSC’s annual residency at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal is always eagerly anticipated and their productions are invariably sold-out weeks in advance of the actual performance dates. The second production of the season, following on from last week’s ‘As You Like It’, is the Bard’s story of jealousy, paranoia, reconciliation and second chances, ‘The Winter’s Tale.’

When King Leontes of Sicilia (Greg Hicks) asks his friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Darrell D’Silva), to extend his visit to Sicilia, Polixenes initially protests. But after Leontes' pregnant wife, Hermione (Kelly Hunter), flirtingly pleads with him he agrees to stay a little longer. Leontes soon becomes possessed with jealousy and Hicks gives an extremely convincing performance of a man consumed by his own suspicions, stalking around the stage and even staring into the face of his son, Mamillius (Alfie Jones), looking for the resemblance of someone other than himself.

Convinced that Polixenes and Hermione are lovers, he orders his aide, Camillo (John MacKay), to kill the Bohemian king, but Camillo warns Polixenes and the two men flee Sicilia immediately. Furious at their escape, Leontes publicly accuses his wife of cuckolding him, and declares that the child she is carrying must be illegitimate. Kelly Hunter is magnificent as Hermione during the trial scene in which the accused queen defends herself with suppressed passion and quiet dignity. However, her husband is blind to reason and he throws her in prison, despite the protests of his nobles, and sends to the Oracle of Apollo for confirmation of his suspicions.

During her incarceration, the queen gives birth to a girl, and her loyal friend Paulina (Noma Dumezweni) brings the baby to the king, hopeful that the sight of the child will break his resolve. Dumezweni’s Paulina is the antithesis of Hunter’s Hermione, vigorously rebuking Leontes for his cruelty and stupidity and lighting up the stage with feistiness in the process.Leontes only grows angrier, however, and orders Paulina's husband, Lord Antigonus (James Gale), to take the child and abandon it. While Antigonus is gone, the answer comes from Delphi - Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. As this news is revealed, word comes that Leontes's son, Mamillius, has died of a sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. Hermione faints at the news and is carried away by Paulina, who subsequently reports the queen's death to her heartbroken and repentant husband.

Having abandoned the baby, Perdita, on the Bohemian coast, leaving gold and other tokens with her, Antigonus is killed by a bear. Perdita is found and raised by a kindly Shepherd (Larrington Walker) and his simpleton son (Gruffudd Glyn).

‘The Winter’s Tale’ certainly seems to be a play of two contrasting halves. Act One is typical Shakespearean drama, filled with passion, betrayal and intrigue, whilst Act Two is somewhat more of a comedy, with stock characters, farcical situations and a good smattering of bawdiness. However, this juxtaposition is neatly explained by a change of setting and the passage of sixteen years.

During a sheep-shearing festival, in Bohemia, we learn that the son of Polixenes, Prince Florizel (Tunji Kasim), has fallen in love with Perdita (Samantha Young). His father and Camillo are attending the event in disguise and watch as Florizel and Perdita are betrothed. Then, dispensing with the disguise, Polixenes orders his son never to see the Shepherd's daughter again. With the aid of Camillo, however, who longs to see his native land again, Florizel and Perdita take voyage for Sicilia, after using the clothes of a local thief and vagabond, Autolycus (Brian Doherty), to disguise themselves. They are joined aboard the ship by the Shepherd and his son.

In Sicilia, Leontes, still in grief-stricken, greets the son of his old friend effusively. Florizel pretends to be on a diplomatic mission from his father, but his cover is blown when Polixenes and Camillo, too, arrive in Sicilia. What happens next is told to us by gentlemen of the Sicilian court: the Shepherd tells everyone his story of how Perdita was found, and Leontes realises that she is his daughter, leading to general rejoicing. They then go to Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Hermione has been recently completed. The sight of his wife's form makes Leontes distraught, but, to everyone's amazement, Paulina summons the statue to life. Subsequently, Leontes and Hermione are reconciled, Paulina and Camillo are engaged, and the ‘miracle’ is celebrated.

This technically superb production is exquisite and breathtaking, no minor detail having been overlooked. Jon Bausor’s sets are magnificent and lend themselves fully and impressively to the staggering special effects that add significant impact to the piece. The performances are, as one might expect from the RSC, consistently excellent, and David Farr’s direction ensures that the pace never drags or falters. Quite simply, spectacular.

runs until Sat 31 Oct .
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