The Winter's Tale does have a reputation for being a problematic play. The verse is some of the most challenging Shakespeare ever wrote and the overall structure of the text presents directors with some difficult choices. Whilst Lucy Bailey uses her considerable creativity to resolve some of these issues, this new production fails to fully reconcile the audience to the piece – leaving us somewhat lost as to what to make of it.
Bailey and designer William Dudley have chosen to use projection as a significant element of the production. For large sections of the action, the backdrop to the stage is an ever-changing seascape moving from the sunlit still calm of the opening scene through to vicious storms as Leontes (Jo-Stone Fewings) descends into his jealous rages.
No doubt the intent is to reflect the emotional state of the characters, but this constant digital movement becomes a serious distraction that detracts from, rather than reinforces, the journeys of the characters. And the less said about the CGI bear, the better.
The physical elements of the design are stronger. The large 'ivory tower' on which Leontes chooses to isolate himself in the second half of the play is imposing and impressive (and I admit that the way it emerges reminded me very strongly of the industrial chimneys in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, which is perhaps not the creative intention). The costumes are suitably sumptuous and down-at-heel where appropriate.
Of course, the production should not succeed or fail on the design – it is the performances that should matter more. Here again, it's a mixed bag. Tara Fitzgerald, in her RSC debut, makes a finely detailed and engaging Hermione and is well matched by an expressively determined Paulina from Rakie Ayola. The male nobles are less effective – many of them failing to get the measure of the RST acoustics, meaning that many lines are completely lost. Too often, I feel there is too much emoting and not enough real engagement with the text – which, for the RSC, is unforgivable.
Once we move to Bohemia, the performances are more successful. Pearce Quigley steals the show completely with his wickedly entertaining Autolycus. He has a real flair for using Shakespeare’s words for their proper comic effect – a truly memorable creation of a great character. He is well-matched by the Shepherds (David Shaw-Parker and Nick Holder) who relish the opportunities the script allows them. A special word also for Mopsa (Charlotte Mills) and Dorcas (Sally Bankes) – their characterisation and physicality is a joy throughout.
It's a play, and a production, of two halves. Unfortunately those halves never quite come together to form a cohesive whole. The result is a solid piece of work but not one I would be eager to see again.