The Winter’s Tale is enjoying a moment in the sun – following Kenneth Branagh’s version in the West End and Northern Broadsides’ touring show, Michael Longhurst here directs the play as part of Dominic Dromgoole’s season of late Shakespeares; this is an unflashy production, that allows Shakespeare’s words to speak for themselves.
Leontes is seized by jealousy, believing his wife Hermione to be having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes; his rages soon lose him all – their baby daughter is sent away to die, their son expires of grief and Hermione appears to follow. It’s icy stuff – until the second half transports us to a lusty, pastoral sheep-shearing festival, where the lost princess Perdita is alive in Bohemia, and has handily fallen in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. A final reconciliation takes place – when even Hermione seems restored.
Rachael Stirling plays Hermione initially as, well, not a flirt, but with a certain knowingness, all eyebrows and batted lashes – and rather sarcastic to the testy Leontes. Is there even a suggestion that it’s not the perfect marriage later remembered? John Light’s Leontes begins muttering, almost doubtful, but an increasingly violent temper burns through as things go from bad to – surely? – unforgivable. Stirling, meanwhile, imbues the downfallen Hermione with real dignity, despite being clankingly manacled, bloody and on the verge of physical collapse. Publicly shamed, in a sham trial, she’s an unusually ferocious Hermione, blisteringly scornful – no saint or delicate flower.
Niamh Cusack as Paulina is also formidable – but with exaggerated, jumpy gestures, she overdoes it rather. Unfair maybe, but it is hard to erase the recent stately, shaded performance from Judi Dench in the same role.
Leontes’ jealousy is swift and deadly, and the music here helps make this work: his paranoid soliloquies are soundtracked by nerve-shredding, shrilly sustained notes on a string. And the joy of Dromgoole’s late plays season, for theatre geeks at least, is seeing the effect of music and candle-light in this intimate theatre – generally, it works brilliantly for the icky bits. The gloomy closeness certainly suits Leontes’ soliloquies; we become complicit in his diseased fears of being a cuckold. His poisonous language seems to crawl over the audience like a spider, as he feverishly frets about his wife being “sluiced” and “slippery”.
The play of light and dark can also be used as a kind of Jacobean special effect. They could have gone for an even more dramatic chiaroscuro for Hermione’s statue, but ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is certainly helped by lamp-lit shadows. A shipwreck is evoked through percussion and cries in pitch darkness; a CGI widescreen version of a shipwreck would likely be less transporting.
And so to Bohemia. The two young lovers seem very young, gauche even; Tia Bannon as Perdita is sweet, but “noble”? Not so much. A couples jig is comically awkward rather than sensual, and followed by a mind-boggling satyr dance – part Haka, part filthy sex-tableaux. You sense it’s meant as a reminder of how sex and violence are twinned everywhere, but it doesn’t quite work: Longhurst’s otherwise steady grip slipping.
Still, James Garnon – after being mis-cast as Pericles – makes a welcome return in the clowning role of Autolycus. A trickster and songster, the part gives him ample chance to play up to the crowd, in a delightful ragbag of different accents and characters. Kirsty Woodward also quietly scene-steals as a gangly, comically spurned milk-maid.
The ending is a happy reunion all-round – slightly surprising given the particular brutality of Hermione’s treatment. But Longhurst is evidently intent on serving the play, not putting any spin on it. The result feels, for the most part, assured and entertaining, even if the swerve to Bohemia doesn’t have quite enough swing. But this tale is still is moving in its final moments of redemption, the flickering candlelight casting a warm glow.
The Winter’s Tale is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe till 22 April.