Lucy Bailey’s production of The Winter’s Tale in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is beautifully clear, lively and spirited. Rather unusually I didn’t spend time trying to work out why Leontes becomes jealous.Â It’s a given that he does and the play’s interest is in the repercussions.
In an article in the programme Lucy Bailey explains the concepts that she and William Dudley worked on together.Â The main one isÂ a good one – “that Leontes’s court is at the top of an ivory tower, surrounded by sea and sky, with no clue as to the actual, real world down below”.Â The lush, richly coloured fabrics on which the characters lounge in a kind of middle eastern pleasure palace establishes this nicely. As things get worse the colours begin to transform into black and white. So far, excellent. Lucy Bailey also says “Bohemia is on the rough rocks at the bottom of the tower. You could say that the hard labour of those at the bottom of the tower has provided for those up top”. Fine. The blocking at the beginning of the sheep shearing mirrors that of the opening at Bohemia’s court. The Sicilian actors double as those of Bohemia and the point is clearly established.
As with manyÂ good ideas, however, relentless embellishment detracts rather than enhances. Bohemia is the northwest coast of Industrial England. Leontes’s ivory tower is an enormous metallic erection which rises from the deep pit once we are in Bohemia. The Bohemians at the sheep shearing are on the beach in Lancashire Wakes Week. Tiresomely literal, I thought. Placing Leontes at the top of the ivory tower during the Bohemia scenes, getting up from time to time, was maybe meant to remind us of the character driving the plot. Might we have forgotten otherwise?
William Dudley is one of Britain’s greatest theatre designers but I didn’t think this was one of his best efforts. The backdrop displays endless (almost) pictures of moving waves. Looking at them nearly did my head in. I wanted to watch the play but was constantly distracted. The bear which kills Antigonus rises out of the sea in the video, strides behind the “ivory” tower and disappears videoÂ left just before we hear that it has killed Antigonus. I needed an actor in a costume, not a pop video.
Still, design aspects apart this is a very good production. If you can avoid the distractions and watch the actors instead, there is much to admire and to move. I think Polixenes is a very tricky part to play but Adam Levy does a great job – he’s lively, sexy, honest, charming – Â and appropriately getsÂ infected byÂ Leontes’s jealousy in his dealings with Florizel. Florizel is more convincing than Florizels usually are. Nick Holder creates a funny, completely convincing Young Shepherd (no shepherd in sight of course, though, in this production, but that’s not his fault). I thought David Shaw-Parker was outstanding as Archidamus and the Old Shepherd; his acting was varied and very subtle.Â His Old ShepherdÂ was understated and beautiful, even moving, to watch. Tara Fitzgerald’s Hermione is also complex and also understated. The statue scene is beautifully done. It is very still, beautifully blocked.Â Â Even the stupid video of the sea stops so that one can watch the acting and start to feel something.Â Â I greatly admired Jo Stone-Fewings’s Leontes. Vocally and physically he was delightful to watch.
Significant changes were made after the previews, all improvements. Half an hour was cut. The dry ice which had ruined the statue scene was cut. A shame about the video backdrop and the tower.
We had unnecessary goalposts in Merry Wives. We have a “ivory” tower and video here.Â Let’s hope when it comes to Hamlet that someone forgets to include technical gimmicks. You don’t have to do something just because you can.
The production is well worth seeing, though, particularly because of the acting. Come and see it before it goes on tour and enjoy a night at Moss Cottage, too.