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The Winter's Tale (RSC)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Even the heavens were on the RSC’s side; a sprinkling of snow falling from the London sky was a perfect accompaniment to the opening night.

And what a chilly place Sicily is in David Farr’s fascinating production. The play is usually seen as a domestic tragedy; the very personal story of Leontes and the loss of his son and supposed loss of his wife and daughter.

But there’s another dimension here: Sicily is presented as a well-ordered state, a reflection of Leontes’ cold reserve. And Kelly Hunter’s dutiful Hermione sees herself almost as an adjunct to her husband in, fatefully for her, pleading for Polixenes to stay. The stability of the marriage is tied up with the stability of governance; when one collapses, so does the other – quite literally in this case. What Farr does is to tie Leontes' despair and rejection with that of Perdita's abandonment – while the baby is left to the very real elements, Leontes feels the cold metaphorical winds.

Greg Hicks maintains an icy presence from the outset – there's little trace of the high-spirited boy that Polixenes recalls with such enthusiasm. The two friends are neatly contrasted,Leontes worn down by the cares of office, while Darrell D'Silva's Polixenes exudes bonhomie - he’s certainly no stranger to the temptations that he mentions.

This contrast is reflected in the two kingdoms – there's meant to be a contrast between the pastoral arcadia of Bohemia and the formality of the Sicilian court but it's rarely as stark as this. Sicily is a country cast in Leontes’ image – and Hicks’ formidable display of emotionless reserve, transmogrifying into a paranoiac jealousy, makes for a compelling performance.

There's a very strong Paulina, the fearless critic of the king's behaviour, from Noma Dumezweni and Brian Doherty gives us a lively, double-dealing Autolycus and Hunter makes for a sympathetic figure as the wronged queen, appearing before the court in her robes, still blood-stained from childbirth. Plaudits too for Jon Bausor’s set, the tottering pile of books reflecting Leontes’ rigid intellectualism and neatly transforming itself to the more bucolic Bohemia. And for those interested in Antigonus’s sticky end – there’s a terrific bear.

- Maxwell Cooter

Please Note: This THREE-STAR review is from the production's run at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in April 2009.

Perhaps fittingly, the Royal Shakespeare Company seems to enjoy a unique amount of success with this frustratingly uneven play. Whilst not eclipsing the memory of Dominic Cooke’s magnificent promenade production for the Complete Works Festival back in 2006, David Farr’s new production inaugurates the company’s new two-and-a-half-year ensemble project with considerable style.

The play’s unevenness stems from the enormous difference in tone between the tension and tragedy of the Sicilian court and the pastoral frippery which prevails in the Bohemian shepherd community. Farr struggles to make the Bohemian experience particularly amusing or entertaining, despite Brian Doherty’s winning turn as the roguish Autolycus, shambling around like an endearing mixture of Johnny Vegas and Shane MacGowan.

The inclusion of one of the RSC’s stock-in-trade folk dance sequences does little to lift the spirits either. Significantly, the one Bohemian scene which travels into truly dark territory - the abandonment of baby Paulina - does pack a proper punch, as Steve Tiplady’s formidable ten-foot puppet bear envelops Antigonus bodily and draws him to his death.

Sicily is infinitely more satisfying, allowing both the acting company and the production design to soar to considerable dramatic heights. Keith Clouston’s superb, almost subliminal score features an array of ticks and chimes which pick up the play’s theme of the fateful passage of time and the production latterly draws very explicit parallels with Great Expectations, as we return to Leontes’ ravaged palace where Paulina haunts the chambers like Miss Havisham, persistently reminding the shattered king of his own folly which has caused the court’s emotional clocks to be stopped.

The evening features a sterling quintet of central performances, with standouts being John Mackay’s magnificent Camillo; Greg Hicks as Leontes, a chilling monomaniac who never raises his voice; and best of all, Noma Dumezweni’s Paulina, a formidable moral match for Leontes. She provides perhaps the only true touch of warmth in a production which has arguably allowed the chill of winter to penetrate just a little too far and whose heart remains a little too hard to bring about a final joyous release.

- Philip Holyman


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