Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a notoriously difficult piece. From Leontes’s sudden mistrust of his virtuous wife Hermione, which sets the play in motion, through the famous “exit pursued by a bear”, to the resolution, which sees Hermione return, seemingly from the dead, to forgive her penitent husband, it is a play of extremes and implausibilities.

Edward Hall’s tight ensemble work resourcefully to create the two somewhat dreamlike worlds in which such a story can take place: first, a stark, austere Sicilia, lit by flaming torches, which reflect atmospherically off Michael Pavelka’s cold steel set; then a truly Bohemian Bohemia, with an anarchic rock festival feel that brings a freshness to the difficult pastoral section in Act Two. Other challenging aspects of the play, such as the death by bear, are handled with a simple, creative flair, in keeping with the mode of storytelling at the heart of the play, and thus, making greater sense of its fable-like ending.

Yet, the one question which no one seems to be asking (or answering in any programme note) is why, in an otherwise startlingly contemporary production, does this company reinstitute the outdated practice of all-male casting? The effect is alienating in the play’s first scenes. As it progresses, and it becomes clear that all but the smaller, comic female roles are approached with sincerity, rather than as cringing stereotypes, one is left remarking that some of these men can play these roles “almost” as well as a woman could. This seems slim justification for such an artistic policy.

This said, Vince Leigh creates a striking Paulina, whose chastisement of Leontes reaches a level of cruelty that makes sense of the play’s far-fetched ending, and casting Ben Allen as both the young Mamillius and his sister Perdita provokes some nice resonances. Richard Dempsey’s Hermione is less convincing, however. Robert Hands is well on the way to creating a strong Leontes (once he is a little more sure of his lines) and John Dougall, Karl Davies and Tony Bell bring tremendous energy to the play’s comic roles.

David Gregory’s sound design, which effectively combines the recorded with the company’s considerable instrumental and vocal talents, helps create the chilling atmosphere of Act One and the lighter mood in Act Two, and Pavelka’s costumes set just the right note.

All in all, this is a strong Winter’s Tale, but the outmoded gimmick of the all-male cast adds little, if anything, to its overall success.

For more information visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/the-winters-tale/