“There’s some ill planet reigns”
Sheffield’s autumnal Shakespeares have become something of a yearly institution and a regular fixture in my theatregoing diary. This year sees The Winter’s Tale arrive at the Crucible with something of a less starry cast than in previous years (although Barbara Marten and Claire Price were both strong draws for us) and the return of director Paul Miller to the series, after his Hamlet back in 2010. Sad to say though, this was not for me – the atmosphere hampered by a sadly sparse matinée audience but the production also full of choices that just didn’t appeal.
Shakespeare’s late play relies on the careful balancing of two halves – Sicilia’s dark tragedy and Bohemia’s pastoral vibrancy, the pain of simmering jealousy against the freshness of new love. But though they must complement each other, they need to effectively stand alone as well and Miller struggles with his opening act. The sparseness of Simon Daw’s design places the focus strictly on the interactions of his actors, but his preferred method of placing them at some distance from each other on the large stage estranges them too much, both from each other and from the audience.
Daniel Lapaine’s Sicilian King Leontes allows himself to get eaten up with jealousy when he mistakenly perceives his pregnant wife Hermione, Claire Price, to be getting too close to his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia, played by Jonathan Firth. His actions drive a terrible wedge between them all, resulting in devastating consequences, but we never really feel the depths of despair in the Sicilian court. Lapaine’s intensity strikes an odd note, too manic where it could be more wrenching and though Price’s excellently spoken Hermione is affecting, we rarely feel the intimacy of the couple that once was.
Too often, the stage is rarely utilised to its full advantage, whether to be filled with people (the court scenes are practically empty) or recalibrated to different uses (there’s so much space, it seems odd to have Hermione’s cell be off-stage). And though the initial arrival of the famed ursine intruder is highly effective and indeed scary, Miller forgets that less is more and leaves the audience tittering at the exit of the bear, at a moment when deadly seriousness is needed.
Barbara Marten provides a much needed highlight as the righteous Paulina, burning with fury at the treatment of her mistress and giving us a real sense of her marriage to Antigonus – something that is rarely explored in this play. But it was never really enough to engage me, lacking the inspiration to stop it from seeming dull and leaving me somewhat disappointed.