Lucy Bailey's new Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale, starring Tara Fitzgerald (in her RSC debut) and Jo Stone-Fewings, opened in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this week (30 January 2013).
The 'problem play' centres around Leontes, who has everything a man could want: power, wealth, a loving family and friends. But he is not at peace. Inside he harbours a bitter jealousy that drives him to destroy all he holds dear. Many years later in a distant country a journey begins that may ultimately heal his pain and reunite his family in this uplifting tale of reconciliation and forgiveness.
With design by William Dudley, the cast also includes Rakie Ayola, Sally Bankes, Nick Holder, Pearce Quigley and David Shaw-Parker. It runs in Stratford until 23 February 2013 ahead of a UK tour.
This new production fails to fully reconcile the audience to the piece… this constant digital movement becomes a serious distraction that detracts from, rather than reinforces, the journeys of the characters… The physical elements of the design are stronger… Tara Fitzgerald… makes a finely detailed and engaging Hermione… The male nobles are less effective… many lines are completely lost. Too often, I feel there is too much emoting and not enough real engagement with the text… Pearce Quigley steals the show… He has a real flair for using Shakespeare’s words for their proper comic effect… He is well-matched by the Shepherds… who relish the opportunities the script allows them. A special word also for Mopsa… and Dorcas… their characterisation and physicality is a joy throughout… a solid piece of work but not one I would be eager to see again.
Lucy Bailey is a high-concept director… I found her bright ideas more flashy than illuminating… For reasons that escape me, the stage is now dominated by a huge rusting metal tower. Is it a sewerage outlet, a signifier of Victorian industrialisation or a gigantic phallic symbol?... it is ugly and distracting. There are some fine performances, though. Jo Stone-Fewings powerfully captures Leontes’ sudden transformation from amiability to jealous rage and cruelty, and his penance is deeply felt. Tara Fitzgerald plays his cruelly abused wife with warmth and emotional candour, and the final scene of reunion and forgiveness is heart-catchingly staged. Nevertheless I found myself longing for more matter with less art, and with a running time of three-and-a quarter hours, this production does indeed feel like a long hard winter.
Lucy Bailey's new production seems to be straining hard to be different… I felt that the actors had been slotted into a pre-existing, heavily visual concept… Dudley's design, while technically impressive, tends to upstage the action: in the first half it becomes difficult to absorb Shakespeare's complex language while gazing at a video of a seascape that shifts from sunlit calm to storm-filled rage. Bailey's concept also frequently seems to work against the text: the second half's key debate about nature versus nurture, conducted entirely in horticultural imagery, makes little sense if translated to an urban context… there is good work from Pearce Quigley… and David Shaw… while I'm all for directorial invention, I had the feeling of Shakespeare's magical play being wrenched to fit the concept, like a foot in an ill-fitting shoe.
Of all the Shakespeare plays Tara Fitzgerald could have chosen for her RSC debut, this is an odd one… And yet as if to prove her star quality, Fitzgerald makes a good fist of this slight, submissive cameo of an ancient Sicilian Queen. Fitzgerald is such a strong, visceral actress, it’s arguable that she even unbalances the play. Equally dominant in Lucy Bailey’s strident show is William Dudley’s design… Dudley’s startling and disorientating innovations suit the dark melodrama of the first half well. What’s lost is the bucolic magic of the second… Pearce Quigley is a hoot as a deadpan Liverpudlian pickpocket posing as an end-of-pier variety act. It’s sometimes confusing, and too long at three hours 20 minutes. But for Fitzgerald at least it’s an impressive RSC audition piece.
It’s not an optimum result when actors wind up effectively competing against the design of a production. Peculiarly, this is what director Lucy Bailey and designer William Dudley have allowed to happen… via a lowering live action video screen that covers the back wall of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre… complete with sound effects. It’s all so overpowering and cinematic - and in my case, headache-inducing - that the acting going on in front of it seems almost entirely inconsequential. All of which is a pity, as the rest of the design concept… is effective… Fitzgerald is all external competence as she’s pleading Hermione’s innocence but there’s little sense that she’s truly wounded to the core. Pearce Quigley is good value - and welcome comic relief… Rakie Ayola makes a spirited Paulina as the women, refreshingly, save the day.
Does the RSC skill-set never cease expanding? Perverse to begin with one tiny pleasure amid many in Lucy Bailey’s inventive, joyful new Shakespeare staging… Bailey handles violence with shocking finesse. Leontes’s punch to his pregnant wife’s stomach brought gasps… in Bohemia-Blackpool the shepherds are Wakes week revellers, sprawled at first on deckchairs rather than silk cushions… Mamillius’s nurses become two big brawling lassies in a fight worthy of Coronation Street… the clowning sequences are gleefully extended, giving full music-hall scope to the pocket-picking, hankie-nicking, ice cream-licking, feigning and farting Autolycus (Pearce Quigley, sourly funny). It is a clever idea and never tiresome: a shimmering sea projection links the two worlds… I wish them luck taking that on tour: it’s huge. Oh, and one more pleasure to mention: Rakie Ayola is an absolutely superb Paulina.