Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Shakespeare’s language in The Winter’s Tale is complex. When it first lands on the ear it demands much of an audience. Also, this later play of Shakespeare does not fit an expected form. Referred to a one of his problem plays, it deals with darker themes of jealously and suffering, mythical stories, and journeys of time, with joyful moments of redemption. It is to director Blanche McIntyre’s skill that her 2018 production tells the story with clarity, replying on designer James Perkins’s visual costumes, composer Stephen Warbeck’s music, and a superbly talented company of actors.
The play opens in 12th Century Sicily: winter at King Leontes court. The costumes, at first, appear somewhat disordered. Will Keen’s King Leontes is elegantly dressed in gold byzantine robes, with his adviser Camillo (Adrian Bower) in what looks to be a quilted smoking jacket. Visiting Bohemian King Polixenes cuts a sharp figure in a tailored suit, alongside Archidamus (Annette Badland) in trendy Top Shop plastic chunky necklace and pink patterned yoga bottoms. But these clashes are intentional. Two vastly different worlds established in costume: the classical word of Sicily alongside a modern Bohemia.
The story revolves around irrational emotions of the heart. Leontes (Will Keen) and his visibly pregnant wife Hermione (Priyanga Burford) are hosts to a visiting childhood friend, Polixenes (Oliver Ryan), who has stayed many months. Keen imbues Leontes’s neediness for Hermione with an energy of puppy love. He enters with his arm around her, never straying far from her side, grabbing for her hand, or following her around. When Polixenes decides to return to Bohemia, Leontes appeals to Hermione to convince him to stay, and paces with the excited impatience of a child hoping he might be able to play outside just a little longer. Hermione complies and takes charge; gently guiding Leontes to a corner of the stage and advising him, before successfully charming Polixenes into staying. Burford’s Hermione delivers her lines with wit (the audience laughing often) and there is much fun in her movements as she playfully slaps and teases Polixenes. It is here that things turn.
Keen’s misplaced jealousy does not explode but instead slowly unravels. He is not angry so much as tormented. Burford delivers a deeply moving plea for Hermoine’s innocence. After scolding Leontes with indignation she turns to the audience, calmly and stoically appealing, but knowing she has lost. She impregnates the audience with her helplessness, such is her skill. Sirine Saba as Paulina, Hermione’s best friend, is also worth the price of a ticket, (you can donate to the Globe at any time while watching this screening). Saba bursts onto the stage with a physical ferociousness to match that of Leontes’ jealousy. How dare he treat Hermione like this. Saba beats her chest, smacks her head, clasps her hands together and appeals to the heavens with outstretched arms.
When the play moves to the Summer world of Perkins’s colourful Bohemia, there is much music, and good humour (especially when Becci Gemmell’s Autolycus starts one song on too high a note. Gemmell brilliantly shares this moment with the audience). There is much to the unfolding plot and it cannot be captured here. Anyhow, if you are unfamiliar with the play, it is best to experience the ever-shifting turns from fresh. If this all sounds too heavy for the current times, fear not. Just as we, in lockdown, are slowly released from captivity, so too The Winter’s Tale delivers renewal and hope.
Available to watch here on the Globe Player until 31 May 2020