Although The Winter’s Tale is one of the less-performed plays of Shakespeare, there is good reason to welcome this new production of this elusive ‘problem’ play.
As well as marking the start of the Globe’s celebration of the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, this production feature a bold staging. Sean Holmes’ take embraces the play’s contrasting locations by utilising both theatre spaces. One of the challenges of The Winter’s Tale is that while the first three Acts are in full dark tragedy mode, Act 4 couldn’t be more of a gear change in tone as a frothy pastoral comedy. Productions often attempt to marry the two styles but rarely with success. To infuse the opening acts with comedy robs them of their dramatic power. To make Act 4 darker is a near impossibility given the subject matter, a sheep shearing festival. Instead, this production fully leans into the antithetical styles of the play and pushes the contrast to such an extent, it feels like you are watching a Shakespeare double bill, of a tragedy followed by a quick comedy.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse represents the luxurious but cold-hearted Sicilia of the play’s opening. The gleaming elegance of the Palace, all rich browns of the woodwork and golden hues of the candlelight, speak of a King who has everything. Leontes is dining with his (heavily pregnant) wife Hermione, his son Mamillius and his lifelong friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. With an accompaniment of Nymanesque strings and a serving aesthetic straight out of Mark Mylod’s recent film The Menu, the formal nature and indeed rigidity of Leontes’ kingdom is writ large. There is a brittle froideur to Sergo Vares‘ Leontes from the off, in contrast to Bea Segura exuding Mediterranean warmth and affability.
This stiff, carefully ordered world gives momentum to what follows when the idea that the Queen has been unfaithful to him with his friend enters Leontes’ head. He simply cannot cope with something so out of his control and disordered that his world and his mind shatters. The incredibly quick descent into paranoia is wonderfully ramped up by the intimacy of the Wanamaker auditorium. There’s literally nowhere his madness can go, except to rebound and keep rebounding on himself as much as those in his court.
Holmes’ production abounds in tiny moments of poignancy. Our last glimpse of Mamillius (an adorable mini-me of Leontes played by Toby Barnett-Jones) comes with the early arrival of The Bear! Assuming the role of an ursine Charon, ferrying the soon-to-be-departed on their final journey – think Paddington dressed by GQ magazine – The Bear takes the young lad by the hand and leads him away, leaving his teddy bear behind.
When the moment comes and Leontes has disregarded the judgement from Apollo’s oracle, no sooner can you say “the heaven themselves do strike at my injustice” than the double deaths of Mamillius and Hermione are reported with breathtaking brutality. Nadine Higgin imbues her formidable Pauline with barely-contained rage and indignant fury as she defends her mistress. It’s a deft and utterly compelling performance that sends shockwaves through the Wanamaker audience and leaves a lingering impression of the needlessness of the tragedy.
After the interval, the audience moves to the open-air Globe Theatre which aims to create the estival charms of the pastoral playground that is Bohemia (despite the Southbank’s evening temperature of a chilly 6°).
Compared to the beautifully-manicured luxury of the Wanamaker auditorium, hilariously the Globe theatre appears to have forgotten to have built a set. Bohemia is utterly makeshift. Mismatched chairs and tables, a squinty banner, strings of basic fairylights – we’re not in Sicily any more, Toto!
Antigonus duly delivers the infant princess to the shores of this new land and readies himself for the infamous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear”. On cue, our dapper Bear appears to escort the cupbearer to the afterlife – except he has to give chase. A surreal darkly-comedic pursuit occurs with Antigonus getting dragged off the main stage by his ankles only to reappear hiding behind the columns of the upper stage until The Bear finds its quarry. And we can slip into the anarchic comedy of Act IV.
The informality of Bohemia lends a spontaneity and indeed a joy to this world. A slapdash feast table is pulled together ready for the sheep-shearing festival. The chaotic banquet that Holmes and designer Grace Smart have conjured up has the vibe of a home-brewed fever dream, perhaps of someone who has binged too much on Robert Eggers’ epic 2022 Viking movie, The Northman. In comparison to what’s gone before, the freedom of this world is breath of fresh (and we do mean fresh, wrap up well) air.
With songs, audience-participated dancing (yes, The Recs reviewer was one of those picked) and general merriment, this is a Bard at his most wonderfully unstuffy. Samuel Creasey and Colm Gormley are a delight as a pair of shepherds, all heart and mullets, who would never be mistaken for the brightest in the flock.
An outrageous Ed Gaughan will have you whooping in laughter and in song as Bohemia’s dodgiest geezer, Autolycus. Breaking the fourth wall and blithely ignoring Shakespeare’s words (unless we missed the pages where the Bard of Avon riffed on Brexit, David Bowie LPs and the plot of Breaking Bad), he helps the production conjure up a genuinely convivial atmosphere where you (almost) don’t want to go back indoors.
There’s no getting away from the fact that The Winter’s Tale has one of Shakespeare’s most disparate and ‘out there’ plots encompassing marital jealousy, Royal banishment, divine intervention, mistaken identities, shepherding so as we return indoors for the ‘conclusion’, a statue magically coming to life will feel expectedly unexpected. Played beautifully to minimal candlelight in the now-disarranged Sicilian palace, the production creates a fleeting sense of wonder as Hermione returns to life. The final tableau of the families (mostly) reunited hits the right unsettling note as we are left to question how truly happy is this hurried conclusion that Shakespeare provided to The Winter’s Tale.
As well as an excellent opportunity to experience The Globe’s two auditoria in the one performance, Sean Holmes’ vivid and engaging production revels in the innate heterogenity of The Winter’s Tale. Not unlike the tasting menu feasted upon in the Sicilian Court, there is plenty to delight the palates of those who want to explore Shakespeare’s diverse moods and tones – albeit with a much more satisfying outcome.
An enjoyably varied exploration of Shakespeare’s disjointed The Winter’s Tale ★★★★