Shakespeare’s late drama The Winter’s Tale has been bought to the internet in a version by the Cheek By Jowl company filmed at the Barbican in 2017. It is a lean account of the play staged simply but effectively and played in modern dress to what is clearly an appreciative audience. The production came off the back of a long tour by the company and their certainty of touch is quite evident as the whole thing is played with confidence and serves to give some degree of clarity to more difficult aspects of the text.
It is, indeed, often described as a “problem play”, the problem being that there is a sudden inexplicable outburst of jealousy which isn’t accounted for but which sets events in motion. Unlike Othello there is no gradual explanation or psychological examination of how this state of mind comes to be and why such a murderous rage is allowed to take hold. In this version it is quite clear from the outset that Leontes’ mind is in some sort of turmoil and that it is only a matter of time before something cracks. That this focuses on Hermione and Polixenes’ supposed infidelity is almost a matter of bad luck; a chance remark by the former about the latter longing to see his son is misinterpreted (Hemione means Polixenes’ son back in Bohemia, Leontes glosses this as Mamillius who is present in the room) and from that all else flows. In an interestingly staged sequence Hermione and Polixenes become mannequins which Leontes manipulates into the attitudes and positions that he sees in his mind’s eye thus reinforcing his own certainty that they are adulterous. And it’s a moot point whose infidelity he is most upset by – his wife’s or his best friend’s? It’s also evident that the royal family life in Sicilia is far from idyllic with Leontes and Hermione putting on a good public show but probably divided over how to deal with their existing son’s mental health (tantrums and a tendency to cling are an interesting take). Are they secretly concerned that Hermione’s current pregnancy might lead to a child with further issues? And would those traits be inherited from Leontes himself? There are many layers at work here.
All this makes the first half of the play particularly intriguing and the descent into madness and consequent vindictiveness is very well done. However, I didn’t feel that this was particularly capitalised upon and that overall, the production suffered from the law of diminishing returns. The Bohemia scenes in the second half seemed to be set in a ruralised Ireland as envisaged by J.M. Synge (I suppose if you read that Sicilia equals England, then Bohemia becoming Ireland makes sense) and there is a good attempt to bolster the (often supposed) comedy of the sheep shearing festival with some energetic line dancing and some spirited cattiness from Mopsa and Dorcas. But some of the liberties taken with the text go a bit too far – a parody of the Jeremy Kyle show for instance is rather too much to bear. Speaking of bears – this version’s is a complete disappointment.
The acting though is pretty much on the nose and tends to make up for some longueurs. Orlando James as Leontes is totally believable as the unhinged tyrant who eventually finds redemption and has several fine moments; just watch his face in the revelation scene towards the end. Natalie Radmall-Quirke makes a determined yet vulnerable figure of Hermione and manages the exquisite stillness needed as the statue with aplomb – unusually she is not hidden behind curtains at the back but is absolutely front and centre of the staging. Ryan Donaldson makes an amusing figure of the rogue Autolycus but is allowed to stray too far from the text; that said, I did chuckle at his turn as an immigration officer demanding ever more ludicrous forms of paperwork. Eleanor McLouglin is a particularly spirited Perdita who makes the flower distribution scene a moment of calm amid the mayhem of the sheep shearing. Probably the star turn of the production comes from the no nonsense approach of Joy Richardson as the straight speaking Paulina. Her barbed retorts to Leontes ground the character in reality.
I have seen versions of this play when you wouldn’t know that time passes but that isn’t the case here. As characters emerge 16 years older but not necessarily wiser there are clear indications that time has taken its toll on facial features, mobility and minds. This is surely one of the key points about this play and it is good that director Declan Donellan has chosen to focus on it. The other key element is redemption, and this is beautifully highlighted in a final tableau when all the characters, finally, come together in unity. On balance there are more pluses than minuses about the production and as it is notoriously difficult to stage fully successfully, Cheek By Jowl can be congratulated on a job well done.
Production photos by Johan Persson
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