The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Tam Williams as Mamillius

If I were asked to think of one word to sum up Edward Hall - most unlikely, obviously, but a useful "hook" to begin a review! - it would be "inventive". It's certainly the word which ran through my mind throughout the performance of The Winter's Tale. He is inventive not just in the small things but in the larger, such as the framing of the concept on which the production is built, and, as always, the macrocosm informs the microcosm.

Take, for example, that most famous of lines Exit pursued by a bear. Structurally the production is built around Mamillius: the play opens with him alone on the stage in predominantly blue light, watching sand trickle down from the ceiling and playing with toy figures which he moves around the stage, reminding me, at any rate, of someone playing chess, and he is a constant backgrond presence throughout the first half. He is played by Tam Williams, who also plays his sister Perdita and, at the beignning of the second half, Time. When Antogonus deposits the baby Perdita on the ground, abandoning her in Bohemia, the "ghost" of Mamillius hovers around and follows him off, waving his teddy bear in the air.

Clever and witty, if a little self-referential - treading the line, almost, of self-indulgence. But definitely inventive, and there is much more of this inventiveness throughout the play, such as in the songs.

The pace is tremendous - the cast fairly rattle through the plot without ever sacrificing either clarity or poetry - and yet Hall creates some magical still pictures. Emotions run high and their expression is sometimes explosive: for example, Leontes kicks his pregnant wife Hermione as she lies on the ground and has to be restrained by members of the court.

Although the setting is updated, Hall retains - quite correctly, I think - the traditional interpretation that Leontes' jealousy is irrational and unfounded, unlike in the RSC's 2002 Roundhouse production in which Matthew Warchus suggested that there was something going on between Hermione and Polixenes. Strangely, the very irrationality of Leontes' jealousy gives credence to its excess: were it justified, the huge anger to which he gives way would seem disproportionate.

And Hall manages to unite the two very disparate halves, making the transition from the bleakness of the first Sicilia half to the bucolic warmth of Bohemia, very cleverly, by a combination of a contrast in lighting and costuming (cold light, black and white costumes for the first half; colour and warmth for the second), the use of the blue lighting state which had begun the play for the transition of the "ghostly" Mamillius to Time, and the use of sound effects created by the company in front of the audience, something which was a significant and effective feature of the first half, to be replaced, in the second, by music, again produced by the company.

The Winter's Tale is not an easy play: like its contemporaries Cymbeline and The Tempest, it defies categorisation, with its odd mixture of romance, raw emotion, comedy and the supernatural. Propeller's production makes it work and carries the audience along.

"The Winter's Tale" plays at the Theatre Royal until 28th May, which is also the end of the tour.

Pete Wood reviewed this production at the Watermill, Newbury.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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