March 29, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (RSC) @ The Theatre Royal, Nottingham

In my pre-show lecture for this production of The Winter’s Tale, I talked about the notion that this is a play of two halves, reflected through the distorting mirror of the bear, which asks us to consider ideas of rebirth and circles (though the question of whether these are redemptive or vicious remains open). Lucy Bailey’s touring production for the RSC was, likewise, a play of two halves, but less pleasingly complementary. The surplus of ideas on display were too often in competition with one another, occasionally productively but more often to a neutering effect that undercut the excellent work being done by the cast.

This was epitomised in the video screen set. Not content with having sabotaged her own Julius Caesar with screens that distracted from and deadened the stage action, for this production Bailey and designer William Dudley had created an enormous back wall for projection throughout, displaying images of a coastline that moved from calm Mediterranean to stormy Bohemia to endlessly crashing waves. In Sicilia it worked well to provide a sense of perspective, as Jo Stone-Fewings’s Leontes repeatedly turned his face away from the audience to gaze out to the oceans, evoking the play’s concern with distance and travel. But the images became relentless, particularly in Bohemia where the image of a rusty peer against a dark sea pulled all life and energy from the scene, and was succeeded by monotonous waves that, coupled with the sound design, swamped the cast. While the imagery worked, the relentlessness smothered the production (compare the excellent work on A Tender Thing, which used video of waves to far more strategic effect).

The screens reached their nadir during the shipwreck scene – firstly through an irritating blip that saw the waves ‘jump’ every twenty seconds or so, and then through the horrendous CGI ship and bear, a white behemoth that emerged from the waves and lunged awkwardly across the backdrop while Antigonus screamed at it. A 2D screen simply cannot interact persuasively with a 3D actor in this context. It undermined Duncan Wisbey’s performance and the text itself, but perhaps more criminally reduced the bear to a cartoonish and anticlimactic effect, impotent by its restriction to a backdrop. And if all of this weren’t enough, the screens broke down completely for much of the first act. As Rakie Ayola’s fine Paulina remonstrated with Leontes in a gripping emotional struggle following Hermione’s death, the audience burst into laughter – a cursor was zooming around the black backdrop attempting to get the stormy sea back up in time for the Bohemia scenes. There is no better indication of this production’s lack of respect for its actors, and the production was at its strongest when the screen was black and the actors could simply act.

The other key aspect of the set was the tower. In the play’s first half, a turret-like veranda stood high and central, with circular steps leading up to it. This provided an excellent outpost for Leontes, a height to which his courtiers ascended and from which he could muse on his paranoias. Humour was found in Paulina chasing Leontes up, down and around it as she tried to get him to acknowledge his baby. Then, in a spectacular climax to the Sicilia scenes, the top platform of the tower rose slowly to the heavens, taking Leontes with it past the top of the proscenium arch, leaving him stranded atop it for the whole second half. The fairytale aspect to this, the king trapped in his unreachable tower, worked to flag up the isolation into which Leontes places himself, and created a fascinating dynamic upon the return to Sicilia as Cleomenes, Dion and Paulina languished at the tower’s foot, responding with frustration to the barked orders and laments of a king who could only be distantly heard.

The Sicilia scenes were well thought through. Stone-Fewings dominated as a twisted, gnarled Leontes, developing something of a psychosomatic twitch in his leg as the anguish overtook him. He leaned his head against the chest of the tiny Mamillius and sobbed bitterly; he twisted and turned in his sleep upon the tower. In a genuinely shocking moment, he punched Tara Fitzgerald’s Hermione in her pregnant stomach while accusing her. This was a man out of control, a king who had to be physically restrained from stamping on his baby. He was matched throughout by a Hermione with more than enough confidence to stand firm – rarely has her assertion that she does not cry, as other women, rung so true. Hermione effectively ran her own trial, taking spatial control of the stage while Leontes swung his legs at the extreme downstage edge. An executioner stood aloft the tower with a huge broadsword, and at a climactic point Hermione walked calmly up and prepared her neck to receive its blow, before calling on the Oracle.

Bailey’s skill as a director of actors is equalising the balance of roles, and in allowing her Hermione such a platform, the irrationality of Leontes’ jealousy was exaggerated (despite a slow motion, red-lit kiss between Hermione and Polixenes at the start, which rather overdid the point). This was consolidated through Paulina, who at one point placed her face inches away from her king’s as she told him she would not call him Tyrant. Ayola brought a human carelessness to her role, waving her hands in dismissal and giving free vent to her feelings; while her passion was rhetorically positioned, it was foremost a passion. She was balanced by Wisbey’s Antigonus, an affable and humorous older man, who sat next to Leontes to try and persuade him to save Perdita, drawing on their comradeship of old. Antigonus simply wished to cause no offence, backing off from every quarrel and attempting to be a voice of reason even as he undercut the severity of events with his eye rolling and wry asides. The husband and wife relationship was captured movingly as Antigonus gently tried to pull Paulina away, only for her to shake him off with a plaintive ‘What mean these hands?’, a cry of frustration and near-defeat as even her husband sided against her.

As the play shifted to Bohemia, the conceit was that the scene had shifted to the foot of the enormous tower atop which Leontes and his court sat. Against the idyllic Sicilia – an Eastern European state where courtiers lounged on colourful cushions and smoked shisha – Bohemia was imagined as a North West industrial town. The foot of the tower ended in sewage pipes, into which the disguised Polixenes was spiritedly fed by the revellers, and the accents shifted largely towards the Manchester region. If these were the Morlocks to Sicilia’s Eloi, it’s perhaps a frustration that once more an RSC production perpetuated the North-South divide. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating revisioning of Bohemia. The lounging courtiers were replaced by the Clown lying with one hand on Mopsa’s breast, the other on Dorcas’s crotch, and the grim industrial tower under which they clustered (is it a stretch to imagine Leontes atop an enormous phallus of the ruling state?) lent an oppressively dingy atmosphere to the scenes.

Yet whether intentionally or no, the play from this point became laboured. Despite recruiting the best early modern clown in the business to play Autolycus, Pearce Quiqley (whose clowns have so impressed at the Globe), and having another game Clown in Nick Holder’s Young Shepherd, Bailey relied on venal physical jokes and pissing against walls for the laughs. Quiqley’s Autolycus had great potential, mugging for the audience with his travelling tent and stealing his props from everyone else on stage, and moving seamlessly between his various guises as peddler, courtier and victim. He was accompanied by an accordion player who was repeatedly dismissed, only to return as if Sir Robin’s perennial band, and his detached, camp persona gave a wonderfully eccentric edge to the ever-performing peddler. But he was rendered pointless by an aimless sheep-shearing scene that offered some great Morris dancing (allowing Gavin Fowler’s Florizel to show off his skills for Perdita) and some nice visual jokes with the tent, but buried the text.

The main cast also struggled in this second half. Adam Levy, a potent Polixenes in the first half, was here reduced to the most unconvincing stage assaulting of his son in a needlessly brutal and poorly executed scene; Daniel Betts’s Camillo looked fine but was almost entirely in audible from my seat (a note – if the RSC is going to transfer productions from a thrust to a proscenium arch theatre, they need to support their actors with the different acoustic requirements); and Paulina, upon the return to Sicilia, was left with a spooky voice and some ill-timed comic renderings of the lines about the statue that made a mockery of the sense of wonder which her words wanted to evoke. The mixed spirit was encapsulated in Emma Noakes’s Perdita, played as a brash Lancastrian, but whose physical and oral gusto didn’t quite map onto a character who simply doesn’t have enough lines to sustain such a dominant characterisation – one was left wondering why this Perdita stayed so silent in the closing scenes.

This jumble of elements all fought for attention in the final two scenes. The cruelty of the drunken and smug lords who smoked and reported the reunions to Autolycus was foregrounded, especially as they laughed at the news of Antigonus’ death, but with no real sense of why this scene was so unpleasant. Autolycus was rendered uncomfortably sincere in his capitulation to the shepherds, apart from an incongruously cheap parting shot as he nicked the Young Shepherd’s toupee. And the slow pace of the statue scene appeared to want to evoke wonder, but instead provoked laughter at the comically ridiculous plot points. It all came back to that screen, in a focus that appeared to want the audience to marvel more at the seascape becoming dappled by sunrise than by the revival of the distant statue. Despite the best efforts of Stone-Fewings and Fitzgerald, moving in the gradual progression towards one another and the outpouring of emotion as they embraced, there was simply too much going on.

The Winter’s Tale asks its audience to awake its faith, yet this production placed far too little faith in either its actors or its audience. There was much to enjoy here, in performances that offered fresh readings of characters and a basic concept that wanted to say something about social divisions. But overburdened by technical faff, debilitated by preferring the quick and easy laugh to the sustained engagement in emotion, and acoustically complicated by background noise that swamped the cast beyond the reasonable evocation of a thematic point, the strengths literally struggled to be heard.

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