May 4, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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The new RSC ensemble is now officially up and running in Stratford, with The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It both playing in rep at the Courtyard. At the moment I’m curious to see whether the new ensemble format will prove as rich as the old; where the Histories had one company playing in all eight of its plays, the new company appears to be currently split in half, with one group performing Winter’s Tale and Caesar, while the As You Like It company will be appearing in Comedy of Errors and, presumably, the Russian shows. In this sense, it’ll be longer until audiences start seeing the more intricate pay-offs that came from the deeply integrated cross-casting of the Histories, but the chance to watch these actors develop over the next three years should still be rewarding.

David Farr’s new production is not only the first run of the new ensemble, but also his first production as an RSC Associate Director. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that this Tale was a relatively unexperimental reading, opting instead for fine performances, beautiful design and clear storytelling. The result was a strong and confident beginning for the new project, that utilised the Courtyard effectively and entertained consistently.

Books and writings dominated from the start, with two enormous bookcases stretching up into the eaves over Leontes’ court. Drawing attention to the repeated reference to tales and stories within the play itself, the books represented the order and learning of Leontes’ world. Leaving the stage after the announcement of Hermione’s death, though, pages blew through the stage’s back doors, hitting his departing body while the two shelves teetered ominously and then crashed together, their shelves and contents spilling over the stage. From this point on, the torn pages of books became the decoration of chaos, whether forming the costumes for the frantic fertility ritual at the sheep-shearing or making up the leaves of Bohemia’s trees. Their most powerful reappearance, though, was as the ten-foot bear; as mist poured in from the back entrance and a deep growling was heard, two pinpricks of light appeared. The bear itself, managed by two puppeteers, was a mass of paper leaves formed into a rough bear shape, yet expertly manipulated as an other-worldly monster that pawed at Baby Perdita. As Antigonus ran towards it, waving his hands to distract its attention, it swept down and enveloped him in its mass, dragging him screaming off-stage.

A book appeared again in the hands of Time, here a half-naked old man descending in a bulbous lamp shade that had previously hung over Leontes’ court (and had collapsed along with the bookshelves, forming the crib in which Antigonus laid Perdita). Thumbing his volume, the pages of text woven into the production’s design became a constant reminder of the presence of time (and Time) in the unfolding events.

The play opened on a long banqueting table set for Christmas dinner, from which Mamillius stole a cracker before hiding under the table. As Camillo and Archidamus discussed the young prince, the sound of the cracker snapping interrupted them, before Mamillius emerged and, with all the dignity he could muster, placed a paper crown on his head, at which gesture the two lords bowed. The early focus on Mamillius allowed his tragedy to resound during his long off-stage illness. Both Leontes and Hermione claimed him, holding him close and showering parental affection on him, and the connection with Leontes was strengthened by Mamillius remaining on stage to overhear much of Leontes’ jealous monologue, staring quizzically at the words he didn’t understand.

Greg Hicks’ Leontes was a disturbed individual. Speaking in clipped, carefully articulated tones throughout, his vocal delivery slowly increased in speed as his jealousy descended into paranoid nerves. He developed tics and twitches, and was clearly at war within himself. Before Hermione was escorted off to prison, she sat next to him and kissed him on the cheek, at which he squirmed away, his face distorting as love and hate battled for priority. A similar battle was held after the reading of the oracle; presiding from a downstage chair facing the back wall, Leontes met the cheers of his lords with silence and turned his face away, towards the audience. Shaking slightly, he held the moment as he fought his emotions before surrendering and declaring the oracle a liar, to everyone’s horror. The action immediately sped up, with Mamillius’ death and Hermione’s swoon following in seemingly seconds. The effect was that Leontes’ moment of decision to defy Apollo was held up as the direct cause of the tragedies that followed, that he had knowingly and deliberately thrown away his last chance for redemption.

At the centre of his attention was Kelly Hunter’s Hermione. Hunter’s middle-aged Hermione was a mother and wife first and foremost, without the glamour or overt flirtatiousness that might have given Leontes some cause for suspicion. Dignified and heavily pregnant, she moved with the slow confidence of an experienced hostess, and her interaction with Polixenes (even in the slow-motion sequence that accompanied Leontes’ initial expression of jealousy) was clearly simple friendliness. Her reaction to the accusations of adultery, therefore, was not simply one of surprise but of complete unfamiliarity with the concept; her family was her world. Her confidence saw her go to prison in relatively good spirits, but by her next appearance her decorum had worn thin. Clad only in the bloody smock in which she had given birth, she trudged onto the stage barefoot, squinting into bright light to make out Leontes with an exhalation of mingled hope and disbelief. Hermione had no idea how to even begin to defend herself against the charge, as shown in a final burst of frustration where she lashed out at the guards who held her arms and screamed her innocence at her passive husband.

The dark and foreboding world of Sicilia was a Catholic one, with Cleomenes and Dion both clergy, and the ritual of reading out the oracle was performed with full pomp, the two emerging from dazzling back lights. Their status led to an additional moment of comedy in the last scene, as Cleomenes tried to flee the stage as Pauline told anyone to depart who thought her work "unlawful business", before he was stopped by Leontes. The austere Catholic world of the court, however, contrasted neatly with the uninhibited rural paganism of Bohemia, in which the florally-clad Perdita sat in the top branches of a tree and locals danced wildly. The centre-piece of the sheep-shearing was the dance of the twelve, here clad in costumes made out of book leaves and enormous erect phalluses, which they waved like swords. At the conclusion of their fertility dance, Perdita and Florizel were revealed in the centre kissing passionately, prompting Polixenes’ "Is it not too far gone? Tis time to part them".

The second half of the play was dominated by Brian Doherty’s Autolycus, who in his first appearance emerged from a trap, next to a ‘wanted’ sign with his face on it, and struck up an instant friendship with the company musicians, who moved down from their usual gallery to take part in the festivities. The musicians proceeded to accompany him throughout in his snatches of Irish folk songs and adlibbing. Coming across like no-one so much as Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, this Autolycus was a lovable rogue and largely harmless, delighting in his thefts and ridiculous disguises, particularly his superbly pompous impersonation of a lord. As the action moved back to Sicilia, however, he was increasingly sidelined; he listened to the servants discuss the reunion of Leontes and Perdita rather than taking part, then stole the Clown’s purse while suing for pardon. As the company left the stage via the back doors at the play’s end, accompanied by the shepherds, Autolycus strode along in the rear, only to have the doors slammed in his face. As the sounds of celebration continued behind closed doors, Autolycus shivered and pulled his coat around himself, sitting on a box as snowflakes began to fall from the ceiling. A shrug to the audience offset the severity of his final abandonment somewhat, but it was a touchingly chilly ending for the play and, perhaps, a fitting end for the character.

Samantha Young made for a relatively feisty Perdita, angrily arguing with Tunji Kasim’s Florizel as their plans fell apart. Florizel was played very much in the romantic hero mould, dashing even as he endured hardships, and there was some comedy in the subverting of this type as Perdita became increasingly frustrated and, ultimately, their fate was left in the hands of their elders. The remainder of the supporting cast were also excellent. John Mackay’s Camillo was a modest Scot, kindly and slightly nervous – his terrified reaction to the fertility dance which he became trapped in the middle of was priceless. Darrell D’Silva’s Polixenes was a genial toff, partial to his brandy snifters, and the disguises the two donned for the sheep-shearing (in keeping with the generally Victorian costume design) referenced British empire builders. Gruffudd Glyn also stood out as the Welsh Young Shepherd, good-natured and pleasantly dim, while Noma Dumezweni was an articulate and strong Paulina, sympathetic to Leontes’ discomfort in the later Sicilian scenes while still maintaining control over his future, much to Cleomenes and Dion’s frustration.

I’ve raced somewhat through the rest of the cast, but pleasingly (considering the Stratford audience will be watching them for three years!) the whole ensemble were strong, and already working well together to the greater effect of the production rather than running off with their own sections; even the usual star roles didn’t dominate, but fitted neatly into the wider picture. The statue scene epitomised this beautifully; the wide focus of the staging allowed an effective intimacy as we waited for Hermione’s head to turn, but also allowed us to experience the moment through the faces of the various onlookers: priest, husband, faithful servant, daughter. It was a communal magic, and one that the ensemble will hopefully continue to create.

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