ShakespeareSouth West

The Winters Tale – Bristol Old Vic

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Declan Donnellan

Reviewer: Kris Hallett

Cheek by Jowl’s The Winters Tale is an interesting curate’s egg of a production. For four fifths of its running time it is the richest work you will see anywhere, an ensemble whose depth of acting and richness in characterisation can be placed in the upper echelons of any acting troupe in the world. Yet it immediately falls into trouble when leaving Sicilia; turning in a notoriously difficult Act Four that doesn’t coalesce before pulling it all back together with the most spellbinding statue scene that you are ever likely to see.

Much of this can be put down to the work of Orlando James’ King Leontes, here portrayed as a man child who fluctuates schizophrenically between manic highs and violent lows. He is a man on edge from the start. His playful wrestling with best friend Polixeness both suggests secret carnal desire and vicious games of one-upmanship. You can feel him try to assert his dominance. There can only be one King in this Kingdom he is saying. It has trickled down to his son, Tom Cawte’s brattish Mamillus, who wails and stomps his feet – Sicilia’s own Richard III in waiting. Convinced his wife and best friend are having an affair, he steps out of his soliloquies to physically manipulate them into ”making the beast with two backs”. Talking himself into a violent rage he kicks his pregnant wife in the stomach. This is a man ready to bring down the world. His blonde fringe flops warily down, sticking to his sweat addled forehead; a demented Boris Johnson wielding ever greater despotism.

It’s a performance that makes great sense of the psychological state of the character. He is nothing more than a child himself so when something looks like going wrong his whole world falls apart. His wife, Hermione, is more mother then lover. When he pulls her close it is not out of bestial desires but maternal reassurance. Natalie Radmall-Quirke plays her like a women trying to keep the peace, who has accepted her lot in life. There is no sense of longing when she talks with Polixeness, the jealousy here well misplaced. This is a kingdom far too wrapped up in one-upmanship to worry about sexual conquest.

It is a work of so much psychological depth it feels a shame to leave the kingdom. Bohemia unfortunately is bodged, a damp squid of an “exeunt pursued by a bear”, an awkward Jerry Springer chat show interlude. It’s neither funny or colourful enough and can’t get its head around the overall style shift that Shakespeare throws in. It is best to move straight on and instead bask in the wonders that director Declan Donnellan has created in Act Five instead. The statue scene is one of the most difficult in all of Shakespeare, its magical realism feeling forced after three acts of such penetrating psychology and one act of genial bonhomie. Yet here it aches for what has passed, it throbs for years of regret. Leontes is a broken man, Hermione his Saint. The statue turns away from him, to her lost daughter, him clinging to her legs. Forgiveness may never fully arrive but there is hope. It is breathtaking and played with such conviction by the ensemble, who have been playing this material all across the world for 16 months, that it never feels fey. It is a fitting climax to a work that gets so much right. A problem play almost conquered.

Runs until the 29 April 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

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A problem play almost conquered

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