Shakespeare’s wistful, whimsical late plays (The Tempest and Cymbeline too) are pretty wordy and need pacing carefully if they’re to work dramatically. We’re a long way in every sense from the energetic action of, say, Henry V or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sadly Blanche McIntyre’s The Winter’s Tale has little dramatic thrust and there are scenes in which unremarkable actors seem merely to be delivering the lines they’ve learned. And on press night the first ten minutes was woeful – mostly inaudible. Let’s assume (hope) that was down to opening night nerves.
The very best thing in this show is lithe and shaven-headed Will Keen as the deeply troubled king, Leontes who wrongly suspects his wife, Hermione (Priyanga Burford) of adultery, imprisons her and orders her newborn baby to be abandoned. Keen has a knack of speaking his lines in a notably naturalistic, fresh way so that his anger, anxiety and obsessiveness become totally convincing. Leontes behaves very badly but Keen ensures that we feel real sympathy for this deluded, mistaken man. And at the end of the play he persuades us that Leontes really does deserve the forgiveness and redemption he receives – a feat not achieved by every actor in this role.
Also strong is Sirine Saba as the feisty Hermione – one of Shakespeare’s really interesting, challenging female roles up there with the likes of Cleopatra, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth and Viola – who stands up to Leontes and “manages” the play’s famous Pygmalion-like scene at the end. Becci Gemmell both has, and provides, fun in the pastoral scenes as the light fingered but likeable Autolycus and Norah Lopez-Holden is rather good as the sparky teenaged Perdita who has grown up with the shepherds in the wood and fallen in love with Florizel (Luke MacGregor).
Generally speaking, though, this feels like a show which grinds rather than sails to its unlikely conclusion. Other directors make much more of the dancing at the Shepherds’ party which provides some visual interest at the halfway point. Here it is very understated which is a shame because there’s an underused five piece band on the balcony.
There are some very peculiar design decisions too. James Perkins’s set consists of some long slender stands of plywood(?) descending to the stage in front of the main back doors from a geometric pattern of arcs and right angles above. It’s so gentle I didn’t notice it for the first hour. And if it’s symbolic then I’m afraid the inner meaning passed me by. The best design bit is “exit pursued by a bear” which is humorously graphic.
The costumes are an incongruous mess, too. It we’re in the twenty first century (Perdita in jeans, Oliver Ryan as Polixenes in a suit and Autolycus in cut-offs with rucksack) then why does Leontes wear a belted quasi-cassock with golden slippers like something out of Turandot? Why does his young son Mamillius (Rose Wardlaw) wear a Roman tunic with classical border?
I’m afraid this show, which seems vey long especially after the interval, is a thing of shreds and patches.