December 14, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
The Winter’s Tale (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre
It was a mistake on my part to see ‘Pericles’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ on consecutive nights, when I had a full day of work in between the two. By this evening I was very tired, and not looking forward to spending another three hours standing up. It says something then, that this production kept me interested and attentive throughout.
A complaint first, though. Tonight’s promenade audience were almost entirely made up of school students, who insisted on sitting for the entire thing, apart from when made to stand in order to get out of the way of scenery changes. It spoiled the atmosphere somewhat to be trying to avoid tripping over people while watching the play. However, having a young audience paid off when they were getting involved, as they took to dancing and shouting with a great deal of enthusiasm.
This production had a wonderful opening, we all being welcomed into a New Year’s Eve party at the Sicilian court, complete with countdown and Auld Lang Syne, plus dancing and drinks. It was one of the nicest uses of the promenade space in the play. As opposed to ‘Pericles’, which had the audience constantly moving and very inventive use of the space, this was more traditional- the long scenes at the start happening in set places with the audience having time to sit and watch. When they made use of the floor space, though, it was very effective- a rainstorm turned the ramp into a river, drenching Leontes; Antigonus and The Bear (an enormous black one, rendered scary through low lighting and lightning flashes) chased through the audience, sending audience members screaming to the sides, and the antics of Autolycus and the other rustics found a natural home wedged in among the groundlings.
The 1920s/30s setting worked well, particularly in the very grey court scene- a fragile Hermione (played excellently by Kate Fleetwood) brought shaking to the podium by Paulina while suited officials stood around and Cleomenes and Dion brought the Oracle’s word in a locked briefcase handcuffed to one’s wrist. The reports of the reunion scene were delivered at a press conference, and the sheep-shearing became a hippy festival.
This production had a very sombre heart. Leontes (Anton Lesser’s only performance in the festival) was a deeply troubled ruler, clearly uncomfortable on a subconscious level with his irrational behaviour but unable to restrain himself. As the court disintegrated, most powerfully in Hermione’s screams upon hearing of the death of her son, the build-up of tension reached a peak, only broken by the storm. Even the potentially comic bear scene managed to retain something of the terror that Antigonus must have felt.
The second half reclaimed a comic footing with the excellent Richard Katz as Autolycus, whose brazenness and lewd humour were a constant guilty pleasure for the whole second act. The sheep-shearing itself was fun, with food being passed around the audience, a rock band playing music and country dancing in the ground space.
By the final moments, with the statue of Hermione slowly coming to life and embracing Leontes in a captivating scene that again bypassed any unintentional humour, the production had more than proved its worth. It wasn’t as revelatory as ‘Pericles’, or (to my mind) quite as successful, but it was still entertaining and emotionally involving.