Thou metst with things dying,
I with things new-born”
It’s easy to feel a little jaded when it comes to Shakespeare, the same plays coming round with regularity and not always inspiring such great theatre. So I’m delighted to report that Michael Longhurst’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably the best version of the play I’ve ever seen. The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale was a staid disappointment for me, previously the Crucible had let me down too but in the candlelit atmosphere on Bankside, something truly magical is happening.
It’s a tricky play to get right in its split of two very different worlds but where Longhurst really succeeds is in suggesting that Sicilia and Bohemia perhaps aren’t too separate at all. Modern designers often highlight the dichotomy between the chilly stateliness of Leonte’s Sicilia with the freewheeling japery of Polixenes’ Bohemia but in the simplicity of Richard Kent’s design, they’re both very much on the same sliding scale – psychological darkness pervading the light in both worlds, the promise of redemption ultimately illuminating one and the other too.
So the Sicilian court brims with life and vigour, characterised perfectly by Rachael Stirling’s supremely gorgeously voiced Hermione in all her vivacity, and only in Leontes’ jealous hands – a powerfully muscular turn from John Light – do the shadows fall as he accuses her of adultery with tragic results. And in Bohemia, James Garnon’s excellent Autolycus (has ever an actor been better at interacting with audiences?) emphasises the nefarious side to this comic criminal as he skirts the fringes of the budding romance between Steffan Donnelly’s Florizel and Tia Bannon’s striking Perdita, 16 years after the events of the first half.
Longhurst has cast his play to the hilt and it shows in the quality of every single performance here. Niamh Cusack’s Paulina swoops onto the stage in a Scottish Widows hood but her vengeful watchfulness over Leontes is tempered with an undeniable affection for the royal family, deeply moving in its commitment. Sam Cox and Dennis Herdman are a delightfully affable pair of shepherds, David Yelland’s Antigonus and Fergal McElherron’s Camillo also impress, as do Daniel Rabin and Ryan McKen as the Sicilian gentlemen reporting the scenes of the finale with real wit, even holding their own with Garnon.
Throw in the intriguing choreography from Fleur Darkin, Shakespearean sheep are certainly having an interesting time of it!, and a bear that is, well, you’ll have to go and see, this Winter’s Tale builds and builds into something beautiful and deeply emotional. The reunions of the end have surely not been done better than here and the intensity of the acting carries through into the final jig, just watch Stirling and Light sizzle with sensuality ‘til the very end. Absolutely superb work from all concerned and a genuinely exciting revelation.
NB I got theatre tokens for Christmas (thanks Liz and Ron!) and used them here to splash out on a seat in the Lord’s Room in the lower gallery. Right to the side but right in the thick of it when it comes to stage interactions – an immense difference from being up in the cheap seats/standing spots.