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The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
The Bridge Project
Old Vic
(2009)

Publicity photo
Publicity photo

There is magic in the air at the Old Vic. A magic that returns this beautiful Victorian theatre to its roots. Sam Mendes has directed an incredible production of A Winter’s Tale, drawing out all the fun and frolic, even from the darkest moments of despair, injecting the play with a humanity and integrity which beggars belief. Magic and mystery at its theatrical best.

The stage is a vast, open, moderately-raked thrust platform, hovering a few inches above a forestage acting space where actors can traverse and rant or sit and address the audience. Anthony Ward’s palace of Sicilia is represented with minimalist pale panels that soar to the flies above. Festooned upstage are a myriad of hanging candle-lamps, whilst two bench-like platforms support yet more flickering candles. Downstage, a simple table and occasional chairs, balanced by a child’s bed with teddy bear. Sicilia is a very homely place. Its tragedy unfolds within earshot of the poor prince Mamillius, woken from his night-time slumbers by his father’s jealous rage.

Into this pseudo-Victorian world of postprandial joy and festivity come the pregnant Queen Hermione, her husband King Leontes, and their guest, the dashing King Polixenes. The tale unfolds with clarity and passion as the unstable Leontes heaps jealous rage on his wife and murderous intent on his kingly visitor. Tragedy ensues, but it is a tragedy which, from the deft directing and performances, seems more personal, more believable than this often distant evocation of royal hubris and anxiety traditionally allows. We feel Leontes’ pain just as we recognize our own ability to see the unseeable in others’ actions.

The tale unfolds. Queen is accused. Guest escapes. Child prince dies. Baby is wafted off to a strange shore, where a huge black bear awaits its storm-accompanied feast of human flesh. Lowly and simple shepherds find the basket and babe. Time flies, and eventually we see this new world, a literal new world, with Bohemia relocated to the Americas, complete with hoedowning, violin-scraping, guitar-wielding countryfolk rapturously celebrating the return of another fruitful year. Red, white and blue balloons tug for freedom against a pure blue plains sky. A wooden tripod-mounted box camera records the gathering of the shepherd clan.

The pastoral bliss is broken. Young lovers escape back to the grieving Sicilian court. The final act of magic – a living breathing statue coming to life – and the winter’s tale is all but told. In a final tableau, Leontes extends his hand to the wife he has so cruelly treated and who has lost her young son and so many years of her daughter’s life. Like the statue she has represented, Hermione stands motionless, unwilling or unable to place her hand into that of her husband. Bitterness and pain and recrimination bubble beneath the surface as the lights fade.

What, then, makes this Old Vic production so special? Performances to die for, that’s what. Simon Russell Beale is a consummate actor. His Leontes is at once human and regal. It is the humanity that Beale brings to the part that makes Leontes’ slip into jealous madness so believable. Torn between his fatherly affection, we see the torment in Leontes’ mind as he strokes the hand of Mamillius or clasps the new-born Perdita in his arms, before a shift in personality allows him to discard his own flesh and blood like an annoying reminder of supposed wifely infidelity. When Leontes realises his wife’s innocence, at the thunder-clap moment when his beloved son dies of a broken heart, Beale falls to his knees. Arms outstretched, he calls on Apollo to forgive his sins. Too late, as we see when next we return to Sicilia at the end of the play, Leontes is a broken man. Beale visibly ages before our eyes. This fine actor has taken us on a personal journey, one we will never forget.

Rebecca Hall’s Hermione towers over her husband with regal grace. Clever manipulation of sound by Paul Arditti ensures that, as Hermione reaches the crescendo of her defence, her voice booms and echoes as if lost in the cavernous corridors of power, never to be heard again. It is in this scene that the magic of the play is most effectively used. Mention of an ‘Illusionist’, the magician Peter Samelson, in the programme accounts for a theatrical effect so awe-inspiring in its technical dexterity that it would be churlish to spoil its delightful shock value. Suffice to say, pins were dropping throughout the auditorium with deafening audibility.

Paul Jesson’s Camillo is firm and faithful, as happy to join Polixenes on his escape to safety as he is to be joined in wedlock to the widowed Paulina, played with matronly strength by Sinéad Cusack. Polixenes (Josh Hamilton) adds his own royal narrative to the play, expressing as much jealous rage towards his wayward son Florizel (Michael Braun) as Leontes has towards his wifely queen.

Travelling as we do to the new world which is Bohemia, so wonderfully countering Shakespeare’s infamous lack of geographic knowledge in providing this landlocked nation with a stormy coast, we also encounter a new star. That is Autolycus. Ethan Hawke embraces his comic creation with verve and passion. Guitar-strumming, Tom-Waite-gravelling songster, Hawke’s Autolycus is the stuff of theatrical legend. Nothing could have prepared us for this Stateside invasion of remarkable Shakespearean talent. Hawke presents a definitive Autolycus, whose world-weary, world-hating kleptomania is juxtaposed with a touching sense of duty when finally, and ostensibly unwillingly, he assists his young prince to escape. Magnificent.

Likewise, Richard Easton’s Old Shepherd and Tobias Segal’s Young Shepherd fulfil their comic functions impeccably. Presiding over a manic dance which hilariously draws every possible sexual innuendo out of elongated balloons and buxom-bosomed wenches, Easton ensures the rustic dignity of his character. When father and son shepherd rise in fortune, the audience share their obvious delight. The ultimate lottery winners, Old and Young Shepherd give hope to all that a world of tragedy can be overcome by a world of comic resolution.

Hailed as the beginning of an amazing new venture for the Old Vic, with actors from New York and London uniting to present The Bridge Project – a three-year partnership between The Old Vic, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Neal Street Productions – A Winter’s Tale is a magnificent advertisement for its future success. Sam Mendes has touched gold with his artistic vision for the play. Kevin Spacey must be rubbing his hands in glee. Magic at The Old Vic? You’d better cotton-pickin’, sheep-shearin’ believe it.

Philip Fisher also reviewed this production

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby