The Winter’s Tale, Act 1, Scene 2
Stepping into the chilly, misty atmosphere of the small Lion and Unicorn Theatre, it’s hard to know quite what to expect; the icy fog swirls about your ankles ominously, and yet colourful fairy lights twinkle cheerfully above your head. A contradictory mixture fitting to a play famously of two not-quite-perfectly-merged genres: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The first act is tragic in the extreme (people die! Children die!) and then good ol’ Bill has a complete change of heart midway through and makes the rest of it a typical comedy (family reunions! Lovers! Gags about the stupidity of poor people!). This confusing mixture can be hard to reconcile in production, but Shakespeare Sessions do a very good job of it.
The first half, however, is particularly impressive. Christopher Neels gives Leontes an edge of madness as he stumbles around the stage, contorted and shaking with jealousy, foul insults spitting out of his mouth in rage at the calm, composed Hermione (Elizabeth Appleby). Sometimes, in fact, Neels became so angry that the words ran together and became quite hard to tell apart. Against this constant tirade, Appleby’s poised, queenly performance was particularly powerful, especially her behaviour when arrested.
I always think it’s a shame Hermione disappears from the play so early; she’s such a great, strong female character. You can almost look at the beginning of The Winter’s Tale as another Othello (a jealous male leader with no real cause for jealousy becomes consumed by it when he interprets his innocent wife’s behaviour wrongly); but I think this production showed the difference between Desdemona and Hermione. The former is out of her place in a soldiers’ camp, whereas the latter is the daughter of the Emperor of Russia, and can therefore much better bear up under the pressures of magisterial life. Appleby did a great job of showing this; pale, but calm next to her weeping servants as she was taken under arrest. This also made her subsequent break down all the more powerful.
Another strong character, all too often forgotten about, is Paulina (pronounced Paul-eye-nah here, which did make the verse flow better), played in this production with steely resilience by Hannah Ellis. Ellis commands attention as the authoritative woman; like Appleby she gives the impression of great emotion hidden under a composed exterior. However, given that Ellis is so skilful, I did wonder why they underplayed Paulina’s relationship with her husband, Antigonus (David Robert Olley) so much. My companion actually didn’t even realise they were married – I feel his death (sorry, spoilers!) would have been so much more poignant if Paulina had perhaps seen Antigonus and baby Perdita off, or if some reference to their bond had been made.
Having said that, the bear scene was done very well; the puppetry was actually really beautiful, and the ominous noises offstage just stayed on the right side of threatening. I quite liked the sombre singing at the end of the first act too, and the lighting choices were very clever, with each character providing their own lighting with an almost holy atmosphere.
Whilst the second act was done well, it never quite lived up to the poignancy and drama of the first; although admittedly, less goes on in the second half. Remy Moynes was sweetly sensible as Perdita and made a nice link between Leontes’ children – she also played Mamillius at the beginning of the play. Jack Sharman made for a very naïve Florizel, while Robert Myles was insanely over-the-top as Autolycus; this was mostly funny, especially when McQuillan played off of Olley and Nic McQuillan(who was particularly funny) as the foolish shepherds, but elements were a little laboured, particularly the random song/rap in the middle. The lyrics weren’t Shakespearean or anything, and it wasn’t really relevant to the story so I’m not too sure why it was included.
However, I loved the stagnant atmosphere they created in Leontes’ court, as though nothing had changed apart from the lines on the characters’ faces; it contrasted well with the debauchery and drunkenness of the shepherds’ party in Bohemia. The family reunion was done pretty well – the one between Perdita and Leontes seemed a little rushed – but the Hermione-statue scene was both dramatic and poignant. I would have liked to see a little more of Paulina here as well though; marrying her off to Camillo was far too pat, and as such a strong, independent character I don’t think she would have been satisfied with that. Also, unlike in the Royal Ballet’s production earlier this year, no mention of poor Mamillius was made. In other words, the ending was well done, but left me feeling oddly unsatisfied.
This, therefore, is an enjoyable, atmospheric production, well directed by Ross McGregor and well performed by a likeable cast. I’m definitely going to keep a look out for their next production, a gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew in summer, as the actors seem really to understand how to work well with one another, and, in the majority, speak the lines with great expression and vitality. The lighting is lovely and the steampunk costumes are aesthetically pleasing, although they add little other than colour to the production as a whole; the steampunk aspect didn’t, for me, create a whole new layer of interpretation (although McGregor explains his thinking behind it more on the Facebook page) but it is quite pretty. Overall, it is really the women in this production who particularly stand out; Appleby and Ellis as Hermione and Paulina quietly command the audience’s attention despite the chaos and tragedy around them.
The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare Sessions) at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre: 3/5 stars