“A sad tale’s best for winter.”
William Shakespeare’s problem play The Winter’s Tale is really two plays: the first a tragedy of a jealous tyrant who destroys his family, and the second a comedy, complete with dances, disguises, marriage and usually redemption. Every production struggles to unite these two disparate dramas, but the King’s Shakespeare Company welcomed the challenge and took the opportunity to showcase their versatility in the Greenwood Theatre. The director Gusta Matthews, assisted by Callum King, used the gaps in Shakespeare’s directions to end, not on redemption, but in mystery and abiding guilt.
The first half is dominated by King Leontes (Adam Walker-Kavanagh) and his bottomless paranoia. The relationship between his servant, Camillo (Nick Bates) and the falsely-suspected adulterer Polixenes (Gabriel Thomson) was engrossing, Bates revealing something of the moral dilemma into which he is thrust. As Leontes comes to accuse his wife, Hermione (Aine Maher) of being unfaithful, his resentment affects his courtiers (Tristan Moritz and Darragh Creed), his unborn daughter and his son Mamillius (Holly Evans). This first half is unrelentingly dark, with each death taken as its own tragedy. Though the baby in swaddling bands was a little unrealistic, the care shown by each character to the infant Perdita held us in horror as Leontes plans how to dispose of the baby. After the courtier Antigonus (Arthur Manning) has abandoned Pedita, the notorious bear comes to devour him. This was handled briefly, but thankfully without descending into clumsy farce. It is the sudden death of Leontes son, however, in fulfillment of the oracle that sees him awake from his ‘diseased opinions’.
After Time (Darragh Creed) announces the passing of sixteen years, we find Polixenes’ son Florizel (Ilia Sigarev) to be courting the grown up Perdita (Evans), brought up by the Shepherd (Meg Hain) and the Clown (Manning). It is at this point Shakespeare’s familiar comic devices come into play, with music, costumes and dances, and the rogue Autolycus (Jonathan Combey) triumphantly leading the change in tone from the austere to the absurd, melancholy to merry. The far-fetched coincidences were delivered with the gentle logic of fairytales and fittingly the stage was swamped, sometimes inexplicably, with a low theatrical fog. The chaotic quarrels and dances of the Bohemian scenes kept the audience on their toes and displayed the collaborative strength of the entire cast, wholly present and involved. As the principle characters eventually gather together to resolve their arguments under the sight of a penitent Leontes, it is Paulina (Rosanna Adams) who leads the play to a finish. Adams balanced Paulina’s arch and knowing side well with her compassion and moral convictions.
The last few dramatic beats of the play contained a series of conscious decisions that refused to leave us comfortably satisfied. The statue of the late Hermione turns out to be the queen herself, mystically returned, but not as the loving wife Leontes once had. The acting here really cemented this moment not as Leontes’ redemption but as a breathing reminder of his crimes. Leontes, left bitterly alone, sees his dead son at play with no mysteriouss resurrection. Finally, nothing but the bare pedestal of the statue remains. The simplicity of this image and its haunting cold light is disturbing precisely because it feels incomplete. At the heart of the play sits an empty pedestal: its meaning unclear, its presence imposing. Everyone involved in this production should be congratulated on retelling this most perplexing of Shakespeare’s plays.