The Winter's Tale
Northern Broadsides in partnership with Harrogate Theatres
Northern Broadsides has assembled a talented and versatile cast for a production of Shakespeare’s enigmatic, varied play which has much to commend it but nonetheless fails quite to connect at crucial emotional moments.
The Winter’s Tale famously sets a company a number of challenges: the negotiation of moods from heartfelt mourning to joyous celebration, as well as the presentation of a jealous husband who risks coming across as monomaniacal and fickle, yet who demands our sympathies.
Conrad Nelson has set himself a further challenge: that of performing the dual duties of director and central actor. Having seen his superb Iago in Broadsides’s Othello—the best thing about that much garlanded show—I was in little doubt he was up to the task as performer. But the direction is at times static, and the puzzles of the play left unsolved.
Some is excellent. Certain speeches stood out with a simple clarity which offered new angles for me: in particular Leontes’ obsessed ‘litany of nothings’, which chimes with King Lear.
And where Leontes’ first expression of his burgeoning jealousy might usually be portrayed as a kind of overhearing scene, this production strikingly places him right next to his wife Hermione (Hannah Barrie) and her suspected lover, Polixenes (Jack Lord), as they ‘paddle hands’.
Nelson captures the attention with his singular gaze, and Jack Lord offers an impressive ease and charisma which likewise stands out. But otherwise the cast seem trammelled by a courtly formality, unable to convince (either the audience or the doomed Leontes).
As a result, too much of the opening half of the play involves the delivery of long speeches from static positions. The first three acts, then, become too one-toned, with debates between Leontes and his advisors reaching the dramatic impasse of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
Pair this with some slightly too ponderous scene changes—which surely would have been better masked by a musical sting, or with the action continuing as the change occurs in the background—and you’re left with an uneven first half which culminates in a slightly off beat at the interval break. Some of these issues will, I’m sure, be resolved as the production matures out on the road.
Dawn Allsopp’s design is simple, and avoids distraction; the costumes are effective and support the varied characterisation of the play’s two settings. The set consists of cool walls for the Sicilian court, effectively warmed when the action moves outdoors to Bohemia—though the change back seems ponderous, to relatively little effect.
It’s in Bohemia that the versatility—and musicality—of the cast comes into its own, and the ensemble band enjoyably rips through a number of folky tunes.
Debutant Jordon Kemp is more effective as the almost fairy-tale prince Florizel than as courtier Dion, and Jack Lord again shines here, along with Andy Cryer as the faithful Camillo. Vanessa Schofield is transformed from Mamillius to Perdita and, like Hannah Barrie as her mother Hermione, is at her best when simple, soft-spoken and understated.
The stand-out performance in this section, almost stealing the whole show, is Mike Hugo as Autolycus. After a shaky start in which practically none of the lyrics to the (otherwise well-performed) music are audible, he launches into a clowning performance of variety and likeability. It is a witty choice to pitch this scruffy mendicant as a dazed but mentally agile Mancunian festival-goer, and in a range of accents and guises Hugo rises to the task energetically.
In contrast, the songs and dances of the sheep-shearing party—while impeccably and enthusiastically performed—seem somewhat neat and pre-planned, lacking in the true folk spontaneity which might characterise the gathering.
Probably the most famous challenge of the play is That Bear (involved in the most well-known stage direction in theatre history). Sadly, this too is an underwhelming moment in a production with much promise and some interesting angles, but, barring an enjoyable interlude in Bohemia, too little real connection with the audience.
After its run at the Harrogate Theatre, this production tours across the country—see www.northern-broadsides.co.uk for details.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith