The Winter's Tale (Tour, Harrogate Theatre)
Conrad Nelson directs and appears in this Northern Broadsides production
A winter's tale in Shakespeare's time was one thought to be literally incredible or fantastical, and this story if done in such a way has the potential to lose an audience with improbable plot lines: King Leontes' early sudden collapse in to a fit of jealousy and the final statue scene must be perilously hard to estimate.
There wasn't a great deal of set to speak of, the production was all the better for it, and the terrific cast of actors carried the piece. An overhead screen was used sparingly to portray winter storms and curiously this was the vehicle for the Bear to make his famous pursuit, as poor Antigonus disappeared into the downstage darkness.
Actor/director Conrad Nelson, playing Leontes, chides at marketing types in his programme notes for always asking "What are you going to do with it?", and so he kept it simple, employing a loosely modern day feel: the first scene is played out on the stroke of the millenium - Leontes' unravelling begins after the party to lilting jazz music - and acts four and five 16 years later, in the present.
The darkness of the first half held me rapt and Nelson's blood boiled as Leontes' anguish slowly unfurls. Dogmatic Paulina, one of Shakespeare's central and imposing female characters, is imparted with superb assurance by Ruth Alexander Rubin, who sweeps in and out confidently evoking the air of the modern day solicitor. Her staunch verbal certitude never once fails to match the King's. In each of the verbal exchanges she has with Leontes over his self imposed derangement, never once does she come off worse.
The suits and formality of the court are discarded after the interval and things take a turn for the absurd, as all of a sudden the rogue Autolycus is busking in a contrasting pastoral world as Bob Dylan.
Antony Sher said of Autolycus that "there's no such thing as Autolycus, just his string of disguises". He's another of Shakespeare's comic characters whose lines can be difficult to follow. Mike Hugo's interpretation is first-rate though, as he shifts seamlessly from character to character (a Welsh accented pretend amputee and courtly Lord among them). The real Autolycus emerges as a brilliantly cocky Mancunian; think Shaun Ryder doing Shakespeare.
The Sheep-Shearing scene, one of Shakespeare's longest, engages the audience with comedy and folk music, only eventually to be interjected by Jack Lord's compelling and furious reaction as King Polixenes to his son's allegiance with Princess Hermione, a seemingly lowly Shepherdess.
The statue scene can easily be unconvincing, but here instead is dramatic and affecting. It's worth noting too the musicianship on offer here, proving the multi-faceted aspect of Northern Broadside's talented ensemble. They deserve great credit and this play will surely go well over the next months as it begins a national tour. An engaging interpretation of a notoriously intractable play.
The Winter's Tale is at Harrogate Theatre until 26 September, then touring until 28 November 2015