The Winter’s Tale (RSC / BBC) – review

SStratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself

★★★★

Joseph Kloska in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The COVID-cancelled Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter’s Tale has returned as a play for TV, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season of ‘lost’ plays.

It is set in, or at least starts in, the 1950s. We find ourselves in the court of the King of Sicily, Leontes. Within minutes the loving relationship between ruler and his queen Hermione is in tatters as Leontes succumbs to jealousy and the belief that his lifelong best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione.

On the page, it seems hard to accept how easily this happens but William Shakespeare is the king of dramatists and the spoken word carries you along. The words in this play may not quite match those in the greatest Shakespeare plays, say Hamlet, but, tumbling out of mouths on stage, they provide image after image of the human condition and with a speed and style always matching the characters. The result, despite the implausibility of the plot at many points, is deep, believable characters caught up in a gripping drama.

Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale not as a book or a movie but as a play. So, thank goodness, the director Erica Whyman has confidence that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing.  It is filmed as a stage play. Bridget Caldwell’s film direction is kept simple and that’s to its credit. There are close-ups of course but otherwise we’re left to see the actors on the large Swan Theatre stage, which itself is sparsely decorated by set designer Tom Piper. Any music, which is provided by the eclectic Isobel Waller-Bridge, is occasional and enhances rather than intrudes.

Although The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, the first half is pretty much a tragedy. Leontes presumes his new baby is by Polixenes and condemns it to death. He puts his wife on trial with disastrous consequences. In fact, the deaths and apparent deaths bring home to Leontes how wrong he has been. And don’t forget this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theatrical history- ‘exit pursued by a bear’. I can tell you that bear isn’t after a cuddle.

Kemi-Bo Jacobs in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Some excellent actors to convey the script. Joseph Kloska plays Leontes as quite ordinary, somewhat pathetic. Even when he’s at his worst, he seems more mentally unstable than tyrannical which, I think, helps offset the tragic nature of this comedy. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione conveys her lines with regal authority and dignified passion. Ben Caplan playing Leontes’ right hand man Camillo makes every careful syllable suggest the conflict between loyalty and conscience.  Amanda Hadingue as Hermione’s broken-hearted companion Paulina touches us with her uncontrolled anger.

So the first half, which is about 90 minutes and takes us to the end of act 3, is very dark.

And having set up the tragedy, Shakespeare changes the tone. It’s 16 years later, a time gap which itself is unusual for Shakespeare. To some extent, this is a play about the healing power of time. Leontes has been grieving and repenting all this time.

We begin the second half, now in the mid 1960s, with some rock’n’roll. It becomes much more like the Shakespearean comedies we are familiar with. There are people disguising their origins, there’s forbidden love, there’s a mischief-making rascal Autolycus played with a cheeky chappy style by Anne Odeke. All’s well that ends well, except for the ones that died.

There’s a romantic, pastoral theme to the second half, including young lovers, shepherds and a sheep shearing festival. This makes the sixties setting very appropriate, it being a time when pop culture embraced romanticism and nature. In fact, the concept of contrasting the austere fifties with the free sixties is an inspired way of representing the two halves of The Winter’s Tale. The beautiful costumes by Madeleine Girling are elegant in the first half, more flamboyant in the second.

So, it’s a bittersweet ending, a story of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, which doesn’t deny the ill that has gone before. It is clear that some things that have been lost will never be regained.

There are some nice touches in the production. To emphasise that Leontes is conducting a show trial of Hermione, we see it partly as being televised with early black-and-white TV cameras. And later on, a feast is shown being filmed on Super 8 or something kind of early home movie.

Those are really the only thing approaching a gimmick. Otherwise, it’s a joy to watch a production that allows actors to speak Shakespeare’s words at length and without distraction.

The Winter’s Tale was broadcast on BBC4 on 25 April and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Last year Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her original stage show Fleabag for the last time. Now she has generously made the NTLive recording available on demand online with the proceeds going to charity

This is the show that was first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and which led to the two incredibly successful TV series.

First thing to say, the quality of this film is excellent, at least on the TV I saw it on. The performance takes place entirely centre stage where Phoebe Waller-Bridge sits on a chair, only occasionally standing up. She is picked out by lights and all around her is an inky blackness that fills three quarters of the screen.

It’s an apparently simple design by Holly Pigott but the suggestion of isolation and that this person is on the edge of a dark emptiness is hugely effective. And the film doesn’t mess with this. In fact, this has got to be as good as it gets if you’re not actually there, because it’s like a front row seat, it may even be better than being there.

What we get is the full impact of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent acting because she has to mime some of her past activities such as taking a photo in a toilet of her vagina and does impressions, for example imitating a guinea pig or pursing her lips like her rodent-mouthed lover. Her clipped plummy voice is gorgeous to listen to and offers a contrast to the earthy descriptions that come out of it, masturbating to Pornhub for example.

Because we’re all so familiar with the TV series, there is little to surprise or shock us now in the way that her explicit language and her casual even cynical attitude to sex must have done when this first hit the stage. The story contains many of the elements of the first series: the suicide of her best friend, her own guilt, her cold sister and her sister’s lecherous husband, the guinea pig-themed coffee shop and so on. But it’s different because it is a monologue and therefore incredibly intense.

I did notice that the Fleabag character is harder edged than on TV where she reveals more tenderness and good intentions even if they are usually misinterpreted.

Assuming you’ve seen the TV series, there isn’t the surprise revelation of why she is so depressed, why she has such a low sense of worth, and why she’s obsessed with sex, so often involving being abused, but the gradual revelation- in throwaway lines- still packs a ‘what did she say?’ punch. It is a master class in constructing and writing a script.

One of the great qualities of the writing in both this play and the subsequent TV series is the way it leads us into laughing at things that are quite shocking or reprehensible and then pulls the rug from under us for laughing- or vice versa. Because there is so much sadness in the midst of the comedy. ‘People make mistakes’ she says wistfully.

Although it’s a one-woman show, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s long time collaborator and in this case director Vicky Jones and the subtle mood lighting by Elliott Griggs and the often  graphic sound effects by Isobel Waller-Bridge that accompany the monologue.

You can see Fleabag on the sohotheatreondemand.com website until the end of May 2020 and on Amazon Prime. It will also be available to audiences in some other countries as well as on Amazon Prime in the US from 10 April for two weeks. In the UK, it costs £4.00 to watch, although you can choose to pay more and all proceeds will go towards the National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together and Acting for Others, which supports theatre workers in times of need, and also towards grants of £2,500 to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.

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