The Winter’s Tale is one the Bard’s most fairytale-like and atmospheric pieces, and the gorgeous setting of an old church near Greenwich called ‘The Space’ is a fantastic (though chilly) place to watch it on a wintery evening. This production is the first ever by the brand new Titian Repertory Theatre Company, and on the whole they can be happy with what they stage. That it is an opening production probably explains why director Amber Elliott takes few risks in the staging and setting, going for a traditional and very straight production: no moving to Latin America, or an all female cast, or modern dress or any of the gimmicks you come to expect. And on the whole, the approach works, though unevenly at times.
For the uninitiated, the play starts in the court of Leontes (Jason Devoy), King of Sicilia, and his visiting friend Polixenes (Garry Mannion), King of Bohemia. After nine months, Polixenes yearns to return home, but Leontes becomes consumed with jealousy and paranoia about his friend’s involvement with his pregnant wife Hermione (Tabitha Becker-Kahn). He hatches a plot to kill his friend, but Polixenes is informed of the plot by a courtier, Camilla (Jennifer Shakesby) and they flee to Bohemia (the role of Camilla can also be a man Camillo). After their escape, the mad Leontes tries his wife for adultery, but she is cleared of all charges by the Delphic Oracle. Despite being cleared, she is consumed by grief by the sudden death of her son, and the confiscation of her newly born daughter, who is left to die of exposure in the countryside.
Skip sixteen years and the daughter is alive and well after being adopted by a shepherd in Bohemia and is called Perdita (George Dickson), unaware of her royal lineage. She is in love with Polixenes' son, Florizel (Fergal Philips), who is living a secret life as a common man called Diocles. His strict father finds out about the couple and bans him from marrying a commoner. They secretly retreat to Sicilia to get a remorseful Leontes to marry them, but are swiftly followed by Polixenes and Perdita’s family,who want to ruin the party. Leontes is happy to reconcile with his old-friend-turned-man-he-tried-to-kill and expresses his regret at the actions that caused him to lose his family. Perdita is revealed to be Leontes’ true daughter and they reconcile, and Sicilia has an heir. Paulina (Avril Poole), Hermione’s old friend also unveils a lifelike statue of Hermione, which "magically" comes back to life to reunite with her husband and daughter over the years.
In acting terms, the quality is really a tale of two halves. The first two acts are played out very shakily with Leontes’ jealousy and implied madness unconvincing. The script is slightly cut, but the cuts fall heavily on the first act, so the story is quite hard to follow at the start, and Leontes seems to make up his mind far too quickly. Throughout the first three acts there are many ‘revelation’ moments, but the reactions from the key players (most notably Leontes) are either too over the top or too subtle, making it quite unrealistic. When Polixenes finds out the trivial piece of information that Leontes plans to kill him, he almost brushes it aside.
The last two acts are vastly better as the setting moves away from Sicilia to a clearly gypsy/Hobbit inspired Bohemia. The play lightens up as the play focuses on the grown up Perdita and her love with Florizel. The songs are lively and the humour, totally missing from the first half of the play comes through in spades. The best actor award goes to Stewart Marquis, who plays the Old Shepherd fantastically and Jonathan Dolling who plays Leontes’ courtier Antigonus (who is famously, and delightfully eaten by a bear). The main characters do not have much complexity, so they are generally played quite over the top and there is very little subtlety. However, Amber Elliott succeeds in projecting the very different moods throughout the play, and the play seems very natural and authentic.
The staging is fantastic and very clever. As an old church, the seats face each other with most of the performance area taking place in the aisle and a small stage converted from the vestry. There are some great touches, such as Leontes presiding over Hermione’s trial from an upstairs gallery. The playing area is also illuminated by candles, creating a fantastic atmosphere for the audience.
Lighting (designed along with the music by Georgie Wishart) is very good, and the company has some lovely and varied props, not at all common for smaller productions. The stand out piece of stage management is the haunting moment when Hermione’s statue awakens and embraces her assumed dead daughter after all the years. This is played straight, with an illuminated plinth for Hermione. The music is good and the sound paid great homage to the unique surroundings, with music and sound effects echoing nicely from the roof. Costumes are traditional (pulled together by producer Avril Poole), but on the whole convincing, except for Polexenes who wears a blue Santa jacket, though considering the month, this might have been deliberate. The only real complaint is that the leads wear the same thing even after all those years have passed, so the production could have done something to make them a bit different.
Overall, the Titian Repertory Theatre Company can nod their heads and be satisfied with their achievement. The second half makes up for a lacklustre beginning, but the play is excellently staged and produced with care and attention. It is a solid start for the company, and they obviously have the talent and ability to put on great shows in the future. The actors also act as stage hands more than other companies, and the production comes across as a real collaborative effort. It's a pleasant way to spend a festive wintery night!