A few moments before the RSC’s production of The Winter’s Tale at the Roundhouse begins, footmen light some dozen or more candles on the dining table stretched across the center stage. Two towering bookcases at the rear of the stage stand imposingly, laden with hefty volumes. As the action begins, the scene is established as a Christmas party—the characters pull Christmas crackers, and some, appropriately, place the paper crowns on their heads. Director David Farr’s strong vision is one of a storied landscape: this is the Winter’s Tale after all. Jon Bausor’s design features dark tones for the Sicilian scenes, with a general air of Germanic fairy tale. The vision, similar perhaps to the National Theatre’s recent All’s Well, provides a coherent and enlivening interpretation of Shakespeare’s romance.
The main action opens as the dinner table becomes populated with members of the Sicilian court, including Leontes (Greg Hicks), his pregnant wife Hermione (Kelly Hunter), and Leontes’ boyhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (Darrell D’Silva). Despite Leontes’ protestations, Polixenes insists on returning home, until he is persuaded to remain by the minimal, but effective, pleading of Hermione. As in fairy tales, sudden changes in mood and emotion result in unintended consequences as Leontes develops a fierce, but ultimately ungrounded, suspicion that his wife and Polixenes have been involved in an affair. As Leontes’ temperament changes, the lighting (designed by Jon Clark) dims, focusing the audience’s attention on his impassioned and sinister jealousy. Hicks, though often overly busy and occasionally given to distracting vocal patterns, presents Leontes as a man disgusted by his belief that his wife is “slippery.” And though it may be coincidental, casting Hicks as both Leontes and King Lear (at the Roundhouse later in January) points to the irrationality of the two kings and their curses, as well as their preoccupation with “nothing.” Other notable casting includes Kelly Hunter as a sympathetic, well-rounded Hermione. In the initial ensemble scene, she handles well her charge to persuade Polixenes to remain in Sicilia, and later she exhibits humorous annoyance at Mamillius’ refusal to sit down. It is in her defense before Leontes, however, that she shines, conveying anguish and confusion all while standing firmly fixed to a single spot on the stage.
Yet, even after an oracle proclaims Hermione’s innocence, Leontes insists on her guilt, resulting in the death of their son, Mamillius (a role shared by Alfie Jones and Sebastian Salisbury). To underscore the terrible mistake, the imposing but seemingly otherwise harmless bookcases tumble forward, causing their contents to spew across the stage. The chandelier, for good measure, also comes crashing to the floor amidst a swirl of book pages blown in from offstage. When the dust has settled, two large piles of books consume a goodly portion of the rear stage and a swath of pages litters the rest—it must be tedious to clean up and reset for performance nights. In this action, Farr finds an appropriate and effective image for the unseaming of the tale, as the pages of books become the embodiment of a fissured storyline. Indeed, text and page interact in surprising ways, as when the famous bear of the stage direction appears as a large puppet constructed from book pages. In the second half bucolic scenes, tree branches are tipped, too, with pages from books (an inspection during the interval reveals some of these to be copies of the title pages from Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). A celebratory dance also includes costumes constructed from paper (the costumes also involve large phalluses, and the dance itself is unlikely to win awards for its sensitive treatment of post-colonial issues).
The production makes a smooth transition from the court of Sicilia into a rural Bohemian landscape, where Perdita (a strong Samantha Young), Hermione's child, has been abandoned and then discovered by an old shepherd (Larrington Walker) and his son (a hilarious Gruffudd Glyn). Rural Bohemia is awash in earth tones and joviality. The production’s musicians (with music by Keith Clouston), previously trapped above the action playing foreboding Baroque melodies, fit themselves onto the main stage lending convivial background music to several of the songs by Autolycus (Brian Doherty, doing roguery a good turn) and Arthur Pita’s choreographed dances. The warmth is a change from the chill of the court scenes in the first half, but it is a welcome one, and one that points to the redemptive ending, as Hermione re-appears as a statue, seemingly brought back to life. For its arc and spirit, the RSC’s production of The Winter’s Tale excels in its coherent, thoughtful, and humorous telling of a story.