Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The WINTER'S TALE at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In April I will be seeing the Royal Ballet's production of THE WINTER'S TALE at Covent Garden.  It's nice to know that I will not have to speed read the synopsis before it starts as I am now a bit familiar with the story having seen it twice in four months!  First Kenneth Branagh's production at the Garrick before Christmas and now the new production at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Theatre.

As usual with the Wanamaker Playhouse, it's intimate space made the play more involving and allowed for a more subtle playing style from some of the actors.  Our 2nd tier seats were facing the stage so nothing was missed apart from when they lowered the six candle chandeliers above the stage so all you could mostly see was the actors legs.

However the biggest literal pain was the bench seating... it absolutely beggars belief that this theatre that opened only two years ago was built with such uncomfortable seating,  No doubt the Playhouse would say they were keeping to the Jacobean style of theatre. But then I am sure the Jacobean back stage area did not have showers and toilets.  Think on...

So, here I was again in the court of the King of Sicilia Leontes and his wife Hermione who have both enjoyed a lengthy visit from his childhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia.  One night Leontes is overcome with an irrational jealousy and accuses Hermoine and Polixenes of adultery much to their astonishment which results in Hermione arrested and Polixenes fleeing with the courtier who Leontes sent to kill him. Despite the pleadings of Paulina on her behalf, Hermione is put on trial and is not allowed to see either her young son or the baby girl she has just given birth to. Leontes has sent word to the Oracle to judge Hermione's guilt but is angered when his messengers return with the news that the Oracle has declared his Queen is innocent.

As Leontes remonstrates against the Oracle's decision, word arrives that his young son has died and Hermione collapses with grief.  Leontes slowly realizes his jealousy was wrong and this is compounded when Paulina announces that Hermione is died.  Too late too for Antigonous, Paulina's husband, who had been told by Leontes to take his baby daughter to a far-off shore and lose her there.  Antigonus does this but is killed by a bear while carrying it out.  The baby girl is found by an old shepherd and his son who adopt her.

It all makes for a fast-paced and claustrophobic first act as Leontes irrational feelings bring disaster to his court.  Sadly the second act moves 16 years later and relocates the action to Bohemia and the lost daughter now named Perdita who has caught the eye of Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes.  No matter what production I see of this play, this is usually where I check out mentally: after the delicious sturm und drang of Leontes' festering jealousy, the bucolic hey-nonny-nonny of Perdita and Florizel's simpering allied to the extended laborious comedy of Autolycus the pickpocket stealing from the shepherds just goes on and on and on. And on.

Luckily it's Polixenes' turn to spit his royal dummy and forbids Florizel from marrying Perdita.  They high-tail it to Sicilia but are pursued by Polixenes who arrives just as they are presented to Leontes.  What follows s a scene of such staggering literary cheek that Shakespeare has the good grace to do it all offstage - Perdita's real identity is discovered, the shepherds are rewarded, and father and daughter are reunited... but Paulina still has an ace to play which gives the play it's famous denouement.

After the fussiness of Branagh's production, Michael Longhurst's production was refreshingly direct and concentrated, the Wanamaker's stage design was also the perfect setting for the reveal of Hermione's statue, its centre doors proving a natural grotto.  The candlelight was very effective as usual, especially after the death of Antigonus when the auditorium was plunged into complete darkness for a few moments before the shepherd's lanterns were seen.

After Branagh's rather showy Leontes, John Light was suitably moody and tormented which felt more of an ensemble performance as did Niamh Cusack's Paulina, suitably impassioned when she needed to be but not as barnstorming as Judi Dench or Deborah Findlay at the National Theatre in 2001.  For me the performance of the evening was Rachael Stirling's Hermione, a role usually played as a trembling twit but Stirling was marvelously resolute and strong.  Her playing of the final scene was also beautifully pitched and all the more moving for that.  Echoes of her mum Diana Rigg were very strong!

There was also good support from Dennis Herdman as the dim younger shepherd, and Steffan Donnelly & Tia Bannon as the young lovers Florizel and Perdita.  I had wondered aloud if Owen thought that there might be a jig at the end of the show and, sure enough, there was, a courtly pavane with waggly hands that added precious little to the show.  Along with the benches, the after-show dance is something the Wanamaker could possibly 86...

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