Director Agnes Pethers claims that this is an unusual production of The Winter’s Tale, the key to which lies in the play’s title. I completely agree. As soon as I walked into the Michael Pilch Studio, I was struck by the atmosphere. Lights shone onto the sparkling backdrop for the stage, the audience huddled together in the middle of the room, and Sir Jonathan Bate (the production’s narrator) sat in a chair to one side of the stage. The inclusion of a narrator worked very well, although a sceptical friend was partially right in claiming that Bate probably just wanted to say one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.
It allowed the production to explain parts of the plot which weren’t shown on stage due to cuts; to prepare the stage for the next scene; and, crucially, to create this wonderful atmosphere of the audience being told the story of the play. This structure works well for such a fantastical play as The Winter’s Tale, especially when audiences may not be familiar with it, and it works especially well for a cold, wet, late November evening. Cuts, of course, had to be made, but I think the production managed to hit that elusive balance between too many and not enough, with a running time of just over an hour and a half.
The stage’s glittering backdrop worked well throughout the play, helping to break down the familiar division between the Sicilia and Bohemia scenes, to which Pethers alludes in the production’s programme. Warm lighting for most of the play contributed to that story-time atmosphere, and a switch to cold lighting helped to demarcate Leontes’ jealous asides; solving the problem some productions have of inappropriately delivering monologues in front of other characters, and creating a tension with the winter reign of Leontes. Especially chilling was when such asides were delivered in the presence of Hermione and Mamillius (played superbly by a child – a pleasant change from a kneeling student), frozen in action.
James Fairhead, as Leontes, handled these difficult mood changes well, and indeed the entire production did an excellent job of making actions and changes that can seem illogical flow smoothly. I particularly enjoyed the unexpectedly sullen edge, almost to a level of childishness, in Leontes, and his evident amusement at Florizel’s and Perdita’s situation when they arrived at his court, as well as the lovely moment where Paulina, lamenting Hermione’s death, realises the pain her words are causing Leontes. Paulina, played by Sophie Keynes, was a delight in the scene where she takes the newborn baby to Leontes, and I liked the way that this production didn’t shy away from both sides of Shakespeare’s portrayal of women. Likewise, Teddy Briggs was a particularly eloquent Hermione in the trial scene, and the role-pairing of Hermione and the Shepherd(ess) was unexpected, but worked well.
The entire cast was superb. I was particularly impressed by how they handled moments of opposing, extreme emotions equally well; and, judging from the audience’s laughter, I wasn’t the only one who particularly enjoyed the scene with a disguised Polixenes (Jonny Wiles) and Camillo (Harry Berry). My only qualm about the performance was the sound effects, which were often more of a distraction than anything else, especially during the climactic moment at the end of the trial scene where they almost drowned out the cast. That, and the equal-level seating the Studio necessitates, which is always less than ideal.
Cosmic Arts’ choice of The Winter’s Tale might seem like an unusual choice, but their production is the perfect entertainment for eighth week. I cannot recommend it highly enough.