The wrath of the king is death. It takes a higher power to temper it. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a play of two halves, each a slightly distorted reflection of the concerns of the other. Almost-victim Polixenes becomes a potential tyrant. Pathologically jealous Leontes is reduced to guilt-ridden impotence. Sue Lefton’s intelligent production, brilliantly designed by Richard Foxton, gives force its due place but keeps us safe with the knowledge that some oracles never lie.
Visually we are n a pared-down Mediterranean space some time ago (but not so far past that it has lost immediacy). The programme notes cite Schiaparelli and Christo as influences; you could add Magritte and Vettriano. There is light, but this sun is red, not gold. Apollo is a death-dealing archer as well as the patron of the Muses. The Bohemia countryside in the fourth act has feasting and morris dancing but its tenure on happiness is fragile.
Two of the best performances come from Shuna Snow as sharp-tongued Paulina and Nadia Morgan as Hermione. Snow gives us a court lady of intelligent authority and considerable courage. Morgan’s queen, dragged from prison to trial, makes her great speech of justification a pre-echo of Katherine’s in Henry VIII, staged just two years later, down to the appeal to a higher, non-secular tribinal.
David Tarkenter has great fun with Autolycus, that snatcher-up of unconsidered trifles. The old shepherd and his more-oafish son are Ben Livingstone and Thomas Richardson and the scene of the baby’s discovery which ends the first half comes over as more than a plot device. A tame bear (one may have been to hand in 1611) not being available, Lefton almost pulls off the notoriously-difficult-to-stage gruesome death of Antigonus (Pete Ashmore) with shadow-play.
Leontes, in Tim Treslove’s characterisation, is a fundamentally weak man smothering such un-regal frailty with bluster. He may have been boyhood friends with Polixenes (Ignatius Anthony), but one feels that their closeness must always have had a sharp edge. Anthony and Adrian Stokes as Camillo provide not so much a contrast to Sicilia’s king as a variation on him.
Young love is always going to take second place in such an adult drama. Fred Lancaster slightly overdoes the petulance in Florizel, though Emily Woodward’s Perdita is charming as the country girl but less assured when she steps within the confines of a palace. But we’re told that she was very seasick during the crossing so her aging dress-choice can perhaps be forgiven.