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

Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself

★★★★

Production photo from the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale as seen on BBC
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.

Production photo of Kemi-Bo Jacobs in The Winter's Tale
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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RSC’s Twelfth Night on Marquee TV

Adrian Edmonson’s comic turn stands out in Shakespearean farce

★★★★

Production photo of Adrian edmonson in the RSC production of Twelfth Night
Adrian Edmonson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

In case you get confused with Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is the one with a woman disguised as a man and much mistaken identity. That doesn’t narrow it down that much? Okay, it’s the one with the shipwreck at the beginning. Still too many to choose from? Well, this is the one where Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow garters. Now, you’ve got it. That’s what we all remember. Which is a shame, in a way, because the main plot concerns quite a profound comedy about the meaning of love.

In this 2017 a moviueproduction, director Christopher Luscombe has chosen to go with the crowd and ramped up the farce. Olivia’s puritanical steward is played by Adrian Edmonson, still best known for The Young Ones. He has a wonderful comic range from displeasure (liked he’s sucked a lemon) to swaggering pomposity (bouncing around the stage like a demented rabbit) to abject misery.

He is a total delight (as he was in The Boyfriend) but so are the ageing delinquents who set him up for a fall. John Hodgkinson as Sir Toby Belch is a predatory con artist with some unpleasantly sneering looks. Michael Cochrane as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, while not as thin as you might expect, delivers his lines with a bright-eyed naivety and has an impressive sprightliness. (He plays Oliver in The Archers by the way.) Vivien Parry as the scheming Maria and Sarah Twomey as Fabia, traditionally a male part, also play their roles well.

Sir Toby’s very loud and long lasting flatulence sets the tone early on. In fact, like much of the plot, there are times when the physical comedy is ludicrous. As Malvolio reads the fake letter purportedly from Olivia, the conspirators get so close to him, it’s impossible he wouldn’t see them. It is, as I say, ludicrous, but also very funny.

Running alongside the farce is a comic love story woven around a woman disguised as a young man. Count Orsino, who seems in love with the idea of being in love, is infatuated with Viola (in male guise), whilst continuing to pursue the grieving Olivia who has sworn off men. Olivia then falls in love with the apparently male Viola who in turn lost her heart to Orsino. From then on, we’re just waiting for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian to turn up for typical Shakespearean mix ups and misunderstandings.

Production photo from the RSC production of Twelfth Night at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Here’s a difference between film and theatre. In a movie, we would expect Sebastian and Viola to be identical but in the theatre, we’re used to suspending disbelief. However, this filmed production with its close-ups makes the lack of similarity very obvious.

Needless to say, all’s well that ends well- oh no, that’s a different play. This production’s sing-song at the curtain call makes Shakespeare’s happy ending even happier. Possibly a little too happy, in that there’s little room for the undercurrent of pathos in Twelfth Night.

For any production to succeed, Viola must be lovable, because we must believe she can ignite feelings in both Orsino and Olivia, so crucial to the central plot. In Dinita Gohil the RSC production has such an actor. She is without question a delight to look at and listen to in her acting of this character.

I have some reservations about the people who fall in love with Viola. I’m not questioning the emphasis placed in this production on sexual ambiguity, which is there in the text. No, for me, the problem is, when Ms Gohil disguises herself as a male, she is more boy than man. This is partly a problem with the play itself:  reference is repeatedly made to the young man’s inability to grow a beard.

Nicholas Bishop as Orsino and Kara Tointon as Olivia are both, I think, in their early thirties. In any case, I found it a little discomforting to see these mature people desiring such a boyish young man. To be fair, Kara Tointon does carry it off by behaving skittishly and I did like the way she portayed Olivia’s confusion and infatuation. On the other hand, Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino – and this is not the fault of the actor- comes across as silly and a bit pervy.

Production photo of RSC company inTwelfth Night
Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Hanlan (c) RSC

This is a good looking production. Kara Tointon’s dresses, designed by Simon Higlett, are beautiful. As is his set. It’s hard to appreciate fully on a screen but you can see that it’s colourful and exotic and clearly shows the Victorian British fascination with India- another theme of this production.

I think the greatest tribute I can pay to this recording is that it really made me wish I had seen it live.

You can watch Twelfth Night on marquee.tv, where there are lots of other great RSC productions including Paapa Essendieu’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Richard II and Anthony Sher’s King Lear. At the time of writing, Marquee TV are offering a 14 day free trial.

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