Rachael Stirling (Hermione)
John Light (Leontes)
Dennis Herdman (Gaoler), Rachael Stirling (Hermione) and Jessica Baglow (Emilia)
Niamh Cusack (Paulina)
Simon Armstrong (Polixines)
Exuberance and anger in equal measure in this fine take on the '…Tale'
When it comes to jealousy, Shakespeare basically wrote the book: he coined the phrase the ‘green-eyed monster’ to describe Othello’s paranoid frenzy. Fantastical late play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ might not have the psychological subtlety of the earlier work, but King Leontes’s consuming jealousy rampages through the heart of Michael Longhurst’s darkly magical production.
So puffed up with rage he threatens to pop the buttons off his immaculate brocade doublet, Leontes (John Light) is having a ruff time of it. He believes his wife Hermione (Rachael Stirling) is having an affair, so he banishes her and her newborn baby. But as the agonies of their quarrel subside in the play’s second act, the royal couple are rather outshone by a gorgeous supporting cast. Niamh Cusack is a delight as Paulina: somewhere between Miss Marple and Mystic Meg, her character bumbles rings around the raging Leontes, and calls on oracles and gods in the service of her friend the queen. James Garnon is a hilariously priggish Autolycus, and Simon Armstrong as Polixenes blusters through some truly ridiculous disguises – while still having enough dark force to call a halt to the silliness when sobriety is required.
The play’s exuberance loses its way, a little, in a kind of rustic open mic night scene where sundry maids and shepherds compete to out-‘hey nonny nonny’ each other, resolving in a horrendous goat-mask finale.
But otherwise, Longhurst’s production doesn’t do much to scare the sheep: in keeping with the style established by the previous two late plays staged in the space, he makes no apologies for the rather ramshackle devices used to achieve its supernatural effects. The play’s transcendental magic comes from its heartrending performances, as much as its period-accurate plaster and candlelight – but there are enough knowing gestures to the audience watching four centuries away to fill us with baffled delight.