Three words sum up this latest touring production from Cheek by Jowl – stylised, intelligent and stylish. Declan Donnellan’s direction with its contrasts of almost frenetic action and oases of calm is matched by Nick Ormerod’s bleak setting of a forbidding hinged white crate and near-black modern costumes.
Only Orlando James’ Leontes in his early scenes and the pastoral merrymaking of the fourth act relieve the intensity of the gloom. Nothing in James’ portrayal of the play’s anti-hero lets us forget that we’re in Sicily; it’s as though the king himself is a near-eruption volcano, desperately trying to recapture his boyhood escapades with Edward Sayer’s Polixenes and his own young son Mamillius (Tom Cawte)
Meanwhile his a wife and courth has accepted that time passes and inexorably brings change with it. It’s a marvellously well-fleshed portrait of a man one cannot either love or admire, but one who is recognisable and understandable. The weight of the feminine side of the drama is borne by Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione and Joy Richardson’s authoritative yet pragmatic Paulina.
That is, until we meet Perdita, Leontes’ discarded daughter Eleanor McLoughlin), not to mention the sympathetic old shepherd who found and reared her (Peter Moreton) and the disguised prince Florizel (Sam Woolf) who woos her. Radmall-Quirke offers us the maternal side of the queen, which spills across from her son to her husband and, to a lesser extent, to his friend. Only when her honour and her life are threatned do we see the steel concealed under the weight of her burgeoning body and her sense of responsibility for those who surround her.
The lighting by Judith Greenwood is clever; the fifth act statue scene is particularly effective. Paddy Cunneen’s music alternates with a great deal of loud noise – although the verse is articulated with a proper sense of both the words themselves and the multiple meanings behind many of the phrases, I did sometimes wonder how much travelled back further than the front rows of the stalls. But that is, perhaps, to quibble about a staging which carries conviction from beginning to end.
Four and a half star rating.
The Winter’s Tale runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 February with a matinée on 4 February. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 14 and 18 March.