The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare

The Bridge Project

Old Vic

(2009)

Review by Philip Fisher

Sam Mendes bowed out of the Donmar in a blaze of glory with an unforgettable double bill. Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya starred Simon Russell Beale, indisputably the pre-eminent British actor of his generation.

Seven years on, now a successful film director in a career that was launched by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Mendes returns to the stage in a co-production with BAM in New York, which also pairs Shakespeare with Chekhov, features Russell Beale and is sited in the UK at Spacey's Old Vic.

To say that hopes were high for The Bridge Project, a venture led by many of the finest stage actors currently plying their trade in both Britain and the United States, is almost understating the case. Anything less than perfection was likely to prove a disappointment.

The day commenced with Simon Russell Beale (now taking on an Alec Guinness role as radio's George Smiley) as jealous King Leontes in one of this reviewer's favourite Shakespearean works.

Russell Beale makes Leontes completely human as he creates a personal disaster and that is the actor's finest quality, the ability to allow viewers to get inside his head.

On this occasion, there is some apparent justification for jealousy and Leontes is soon driven to distraction and the border of madness.

Rebecca Hall is a beautiful, young Hermione. The tall, sexy Queen drives her husband mad as a result of flirtatious, touchy-feely relationship with his great friend, the exceedingly handsome King Polixenes, played by Josh Hamilton.

A highly sympathetic Sinead Cusack as strong-willed Paulina attempts to bring sanity to the King using his baby daughter but to no avail. However, such was the quality of the acting that one could almost see the King's brain ticking over as, babe in arms, he toyed with the idea of relenting and freeing his wife.

Miss Hall has great stage presence as Hermione, first as a very relaxed Queen and then becoming a frail, broken woman, defending herself with great dignity before her husband and her maker.

Sam Mendes and his designer Anthony Ward set the production beautifully, with the help of a background of candles and Paul Pyant's minimal lighting. This allows Leontes' interior monologues to be set in personal limelight, to great effect.

The casting has been used cleverly, with Sicilia seen as Edwardian England and the comic scenes in Bohemia played out in hick America, presumably as the Depression approaches. There, we meet one of the day's stars, Canadian born character actor Richard Easton as the Old Shepherd.

He finds a baby and moves us on sixteen years, by which time his adopted daughter Perdita, played by Morven Christie, has developed into a beauty fit for a Prince - Michael Braun's Florizel. This scene is embellished by Folk music and dance, sometimes feeling more like a pleasant interlude than a development of the story.

The lead in this part is always the comic crook, Autolycus played as a barefoot, minstrel guitarist by heartthrob Ethan Hawke, who doesn't always make the most of the pickpocketing but has overwhelming charm.

The final scenes are truly beautiful as marriages beckon. The famous statue scene is designed and lit to perfection, inevitably bringing a lump to even critical throats, helped no end by a haunting piano solo composed by Mark Bennett.

This will be a hard ticket to come by but if you get the chance, make the effort and relish the experience.

Kevin Quarmby also reviewed this production