“Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance”
Sometimes quite a difficult play to pull off due to the disparate nature of its two main strands, The Winter’s Tale remains a popular choice for the RSC and this production, part of the Roundhouse season, was originally seen in Stratford in 2009. Starting off in the highly ordered Sicilia, Leontes rules with a tight discipline, ill-equipped to deal with the warm emotion of his wife Hermione. Playing the genial hostess to their friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, rouses a terrible jealousy in Leontes though and charging them with adultery, he sets in train a terrible set of events that hugely alter his life. Much of the second half takes place 16 years later in Bohemia with events much advanced, but we eventually return to Sicilia to revisit Leontes and his court for the final denouement.
David Farr’s production is superbly mounted and works as a timely reminder that even the greatest of men can be undone by a moment of frailty and the echoing impact of the emotions and decisions of those in power throughout the rest of society. It is one of Shakespeare’s most impressionistic plays, there’s perhaps more suspension of disbelief necessary than usual in here, but it works as a tale of human nature and the rewards for those who are faithful and loyal throughout and this production manages to balance the two sides well, provoking huge emotional depths especially in a beautiful rendition of the ending but also raising spirits and laughs aplenty.
Due to the indisposition of three key actors, there was a fair bit of shuffling round in the ensemble which made the jaw drop even further in admiration for this ensemble. Not only are they covering numerous roles across numerous productions at the same time, they’re understudying roles in those plays as well, it is quite some feat. And so we had Sam Troughton on for Darrell D’Silva as Polixenes, Adam Burton on for Tunji Kasim as Florizel, David Rubin on as Antigonus for James Gale and covering one of Troughton’s smaller roles and Gruffydd Glyn covering Dion, also for Troughton. Troughton was particularly superb, managing a gruffness of tone which belied his young age and convinced as the garrulous father to Burton’s well-played loved-up Florizel, coping extremely well with the physical aspects of the role, including getting Perdita up a tree with his legs. What was delightful to see though was the company taking its time to give each man their own round of applause at the end, recognising their strong efforts and proving beyond any doubts that the bonds in this company go way beyond the professional.
Elsewhere in the ensemble there were strong performances from John Mackay as Camillo, Kelly Hunter’s statuesque impassioned Hermione and Greg Hicks’ Leontes, shell-shocked by what happens to his family. ‘Tis usually the case that the Sicilia scenes get the better acting because it is more serious but there was good comic work from Gruffydd Glyn as the Young Shepherd and Samantha Young found nice depth to her Perdita. But the star turn for me is Noma Dumezweni’s Paulina, a powerful voice of reason throughout and the stage manager of the shocking finale which she delivers with a beautiful tenderness.
Jon Bausor’s design translated extremely well to the Roundhouse with the ordered austerity of Sicilia being shattered by a grand coup de théâtre as large bookshelves tumble to the floor, books scatter everywhere and pages blown right through the stage by a gust of wind. The famous bear then rises from this paper to consume Antigonus and Bohemia comes to be represented as a bucolic pastoral fantasy with paper strewn everywhere and trees with pages for leaves. A dark shift in lighting from Jon Clark returns us to the desolate Sicilia for the final Act and with Moorish lanterns slowly warming the place up as we move to the touching conclusions, life begins to return to this land. It looks amazing and one would never guess that this was not the original theatre for this production, quite an impressive feat.
So a strong production of this slightly curious play which is well worth a visit, especially to see a finely tuned company such as this at the top of their game.