The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
Riding Lights Theatre Company
Friargate Theatre, York
(2006)

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Paul Burbridge's modern-dress adaptation of The Winter's Tale is one of the most enjoyable productions of the play I can remember. Clever, compelling and superbly acted by a hard-working cast of six, it pushes so many of the right buttons I found it easy to forgive some minor infelicities - and a final scene even more bizarre than the one provided by Shakespeare.

A quick glance at the programme reveals just how drastically Burbridge has altered the play. The doubling of Leontes and Autolycus (Tom Peters) is startling enough, but the mind boggles at the prospect of Hermione and Paulina being played by the same actress (Sarah Finch), and Camillo and Florizel by the same actor (Adam Stone). It's all done by means of some ingenious cutting and reassignment of lines, and on the whole it works like a charm.

The play opens in the sunlit but sinister court of Leontes, who is more of a Mafia boss than a monarch. Shoulder holsters are de rigueur for the courtiers - even the bespectacled young diplomat Camillo whips out a pistol with which to kill Polixenes (Nigel Forde), rather oddly as the lines identifying him as a potential poisoner have been retained.

Every production of The Winter's Tale is faced with the problem of depicting the cause of Leontes' downfall - a sudden conviction that his wife Hermione is pregnant by his friend Polixenes. Although Tom Peters is more successful at conveying the king's repentance than his paranoia, the atmosphere of suppressed violence in the court makes his behaviour more credible than is usual. And a scene in which Leontes holds a gun to baby Perdita's head is genuinely shocking.

Having made a hasty exit as Polixenes, Nigel Forde reappears as the courtier Antigonus and is forced to abandon Perdita on the famously non-existent coast of Bohemia. (Sean Cavanagh's ingenious set really comes into its own here - a long table is suddenly transformed into a sinking ship). After being eaten by a bear Mr Forde pops up yet again as the Clown, and with the help of the Old Shepherd (an hilarious performance by Robert Sherlock) saves the little Princess' life.

Sixteen years later we meet the grown-up Perdita (an enchanting performance by Rhona Scott-Black), who believes herself to be the shepherd's daughter. To complicate the plot further she is in love with Polixenes' son Prince Florizel - no doubt bowled over by his blue suede shoes and nifty footwork at the sheep-shearing festival (courtesy of choreographer Lesley Ann Eden). Enter the roguish Autolycus, no longer Shakespeare's pedlar but an almost completely rewritten Bohemian street entertainer ("BSE for short") with overtones of Max Miller. Another guest at the knees-up is Polixenes himself, who disguises himself as a clergyman to break up Florizel's affair with a socially unacceptable girlfriend. But with the help of Autolycus, the Shepherd and a letter from Camillo, the principals are reunited in Sicilia for one of the strangest dénouements in Shakespeare, or indeed anywhere else. And this, unfortunately, is where the production comes badly unstuck.

The doubling of Hermione and Paulina gives Sarah Finch an opportunity to shine in both roles, but Paulina's absence in the statue scene is a serious problem. It is not solved by redistributing her lines to Polixenes, Perdita and Florizel, and mysteriously making them aware of her survival before her apparent resurrection. The reunion of husband and wife thereby gains an intensity that flies in the face of the text (Hermione lives in hiding for sixteen years for the sole purpose of awaiting Perdita's return). And by taking Hermione's words to Perdita - "Tell me, mine own, / Where hast thou been preserved, where lived " and having Leontes address them to Hermione, Burbridge draws attention to something that shouldn't even cross the audience's mind until after they've left the theatre.

The ending of this Winter's Tale gives the impression of being contrived to fit a rather simplistic Christian interpretation (according to Burbridge's programme notes the play "can be seen as a dramatic treatise on the doctrine of Grace"), as does the reduction of Prince Mamilius to an off-stage presence and a recorded voice. It's easy to overlook the pointless death and non-resurrection of a child we never saw, the memory of whom might have overshadowed the final reunion scene. But the production as a whole is so captivating and the performances so good I have no hesitation in recommending it to experienced Bardophiles and first-timers alike.

At Friargate Theatre, York, until Saturday 18th March - all performances are sold out

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson