Accompanying The Cherry Orchard as part of the Bridge Project’s first run of plays which arrived at the Old Vic last month, is The Winter’s Tale, often considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’.
Starting off in Sicilia, the play follows childhood friends Leontes and Polixenes, Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia respectively, as Leontes allows his jealousy and paranoia over his pregnant wife to take over. Imprisoning his wife and ordering the murder of his friend, Leontes pushes everyone to the edge to destructive effect, even sending his newborn daughter to her death, a fate from which she is thankfully spared. The second act then jumps ahead 16 years in time to Bohemia, where we see a young couple falling in love and their peculiar parentages equip them with the power to heal the terrible events of the past.
Whilst it was of course performed excellently, I have to say I don’t think I liked the actual play all that much. It isn’t one I am familiar with, but I just didn’t connect with the material. Leontes’ jealousy and subsequent reaction seemed rather over the top and a bit too much of a dramatic device rather than being too rooted in reality. Also the move from Sicilia to Bohemia, from the first to the second act, felt quite disjointed. To me it as almost as if another play had started, I know 16 years had passed, but I took a very long time for me to feel any real connection to the events of the first act.
The National’s All’s Well That Ends Well worked very well for me as a problem play because it mixed the different elements throughout the play and so it was consistently a dark comedy. Here however, I just felt that the tragedy and comedy were just too disparate to create a convincing whole play. Regardless, I was very impressed with most of the acting on stage. Rebecca Hall is stunning as the ill-fortuned Hermione, maintaining a great sense of dignity despite being shell-shocked from the turn of events, and has a great ally in Sinéad Cusack’s Paulina who’s a beautifully judged simmering pot of rage, never letting Leontes forget his actions, and eventually proving instrumental in the dénouement. Ethan Hawke is the star of the second half as the guitar-strumming Autolycus, hamming it up just the right degree.
It is staged beautifully, the snuffing of the candles being particularly effective, and one does get the real sense of a well-oiled company from the whole production, revelling in what they are achieving. I am definitely looking forward to the second round of the Bridge Project where we have Three Sisters and As You Like It to look forward to.