Less than a quarter of the way through The Winter's Tale comes the heartfelt cry from the stage of, "you speak in a language I understand not." It is hard not to yee-hah in sympathy.
The RSC has been charged with sloppy, inconsistent verse-speaking. Why then tax the largely English cast with the additional burden of speaking knotty verse in an American accent, when it's unclear why the Bard has been transferred to the 20th-century Deep South anyway? Whole passages of speech are rendered incomprehensible, even in the front stalls. No parallels about the two societies are drawn - the exchange of the Avon for Appalachia; doublet for dungarees - seems merely wilful and the production simply jars.
Transferred from London’s Roundhouse where it drew poor audiences and mixed reviews, The Winter's Tale is a sprawling, uneven affair: a tale of two halves.
Leontes, King of Sicily (Michael Cumpsty) is thrown into a violent jealousy when his wife Queen Hermione (Anastasia Hille) persuades Polixines, King of Bohemia (Rolf Saxon) to stay on at court. After failing to poison his childhood chum, he throws his wife into jail and orders her new-born babe to be abandoned in the wilderness. Although cleared of adultery, Leontes refuses to be swayed. His other child and heir dies; Hermione collapses and is reported dead and Leontes is overcome with remorse.
Replacing Douglas Hodge, Cumpsty, one of three American actors, is unconvincing and under-powered. Hille, by contrast, is excellent, as is Myra Lucretia Taylor as Paulinus, Hermione's nurse.
So far, so bad. But with the transfer of the action to Bohemia, things improve greatly. Sixteen years have passed: Leontes' daughter Perdita (the fine Lauren Ward) has grown up after being found and raised by a shepherd as his own and is in love with Polixines' son, Florizel (Alan Turkinton). The normally tedious sheep-shearing festival is transformed into a joyous hoedown complete with a bluegrass band. The 'low' comic scenes too gain a real energy. Ultimately, of course, it ends happily and all are reunited, reconciled.
All credit to music directors Bruce O'Neil and Bob Winquist who turn this ill-conceived project into an ultimately enjoyable evening. It's Shakespeare, but not as you've known it.
- Pete Wood
Note: This review dates from April 2002 and this production's original run at the Roundhouse in London.
The RSC is to be commended for bringing such a wonderful arena back into public use, but it can't get away from the fact that The Roundhouse is more renowned (some say, notorious) for its music events and for good reason. While Matthew Warchus's imaginative production has many plus points and, designer Vicky Mortimer uses the expanse to the full, they are constantly struggling with the building's hangar-like acoustics.
In an attempt to resolve such problems, mikes are used but sporadically. And of course, when actors have their backs to the audience (as they will, from time to time, in the round), they become more difficult to hear. This is a pity because there is much to admire in this production of The Winter's Tale.
From the opening, with a troupe of conjurors making a lady disappear and appear, and whose veiled reappearance is a harbinger of the fate of Hermione, it's clear there's a fertile mind at work. The most noticeable aspect of the production is the use of American accents throughout (which, as Warchus points out, is an accent that probably approximates the English accent in Shakespeare's time). The first half has an almost film noir feel, where Leontes is more gangster than king. This provides a particularly interesting contradiction with the rural scene: the sheep-shearing party enlivened by some rowdy bluegrass music.
One of the problems that any director has to face with this play is why Leontes gets so jealous - there's no catalyst to spur him into action. But Douglas Hodge's shaven-headed bullock of a Leontes implies an almost animalistic intuition of Hermione's infidelity. Hodge (sounding disarmingly like Bill Clinton) adopts a curious shuffling gait. With a demeanour of Stanley Kowalski, this is a full-pelt performance, unable to contain his emotion even at the end, in the reconciliation scene, where for a brief second his jealousy flashes again before he recovers with a laugh.
Hodge's performance overshadows a rather hesitant Hermione. Anastasia Hille provides the right level of flirtatiousness to rouse Leontes' jealously but is subdued under the force of his onslaught. Nor does Rolf Saxon's rather staid Polixenes add sufficient counterweight to the jealous king. There is good performance, however, from Keith Bartlett as the Old Shepherd, demonstrating sure-footed comic timing and a nice touch as a dance caller.
Despite some patchy deliveries (and acoustics), this is an imaginative, thoughtful offering that confirms Warchus as one of our more interesting contemporary directors. Be prepared for a long evening though. The postponed press night started nearly half an hour late as people struggled to find their seats, and the actual performance lasts three and a half hours. It's probably slightly too long but well worthwhile nonetheless.