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The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

The Winters Tale Company Credit: Mark Douet
Claire Price as Hermione and Daniel Lapaine as Leontes in The Winter's Tale Credit: Mark Douet
Kirsty Oswald as Perdita and Will Alexander as Florizel in The Winter's Tale Credit: Mark Douet

Paul Miller’s production of The Winter’s Tale is less interested in imposing an interpretation or exploring motivation and psychological realism than in letting the play speak for itself. This has the effect of emphasising the myth-like quality of the play, in which anything can happen and does.

The first half of the play takes place in wintry Sicilia, where, from the outset, Leontes (Daniel Lapaine) is seized by an irrational and overwhelming jealousy which transforms him into a ruthless tyrant and destroys the lives of his immediate family and of others around him.

After a semi-comic linking scene in which a redundant character is eaten by a bear, the action leaps 16 years and we find ourselves in sunny Bohemia, at a sheep shearing feast, where the irrational passion and tyranny of the earlier part of the play is about to be repeated.

The play has all the characteristics of a story for children where sudden changes of place and time, as well as the introduction of startling and unrealistic events is perfectly acceptable, and villainous behaviour does not have to be explained but, as in pantomime, accepted as a given.

It is, nevertheless, essential for the actors, caught in the bubble of stage illusion, to play the dramatic action for all it’s worth, despite occasional implausibility. The actors in the Sicilian scenes play with conviction and intelligent pointing of the lines, and it is to be hoped that, as the production goes on, these performances will be enlarged and have greater emotional power.

There are occasions when the enormity of the events being enacted—Hermione publicly accused of adultery, the trial of the Emperor of Russia’s daughter, the ‘miraculous’ event of the final scene—could have been more strongly realised.

A play with two such contrasting halves and a set piece final scene is a challenge as well as a gift for the designer. Simon Daw’s sombre, dark, wood-panelled rear screen representing Sicilia is a world away from the sunlit pastoral idyll, dominated by a huge sheep’s head, that summons up Bohemia. The bear that pursues Antigonus in the linking scene is a creature of the imagination.

The costumes and masks of the sheep shearing scene are undeniably bright and cheerful, but the comic noses and spectacles often mask actors’ faces, inhibiting their expressiveness. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the Young Shepherd (Patrick Walshe Mcbride) who starts off so promisingly in the transition scene.

The large thrust stage at the Crucible presents a particular problem in the statue scene, but Daw cleverly overcomes this, enabling the ‘statue’ to be placed in a central rather than upstage position, where it can be easily seen by the whole audience.

It is unfortunate that Keir Charles was far from well on the press night, since Autolycus is such a dominant figure in the second half of the play. I am assured by a friend who saw it on another night that he was the life and soul of the party.

I would have liked more music, and more involvement of the Sheffield People’s Theatre Ensemble in the sheep shearing scene. Their ritualistic folk dance to Terry Davies’s haunting melody is a highlight of the evening. Jack Murphy’s choreography is excellent and perfectly executed by the dancers.

There are reliable performances from the whole cast with particular credit going to Barbara Marten as Paulina, to Sam Graham as Camillo and Gareth Williams as the Old Shepherd. Walshe McBride looks like a promising newcomer.

Reviewer: Velda Harris