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The Winter's Tale
Photograph: Rebecca Greenfield

Theater review: Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale gets a frosty reception in Brooklyn

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If you heard a loud whumpf coming from Brooklyn Tuesday night, it was just the sound of my expectations crashing down around my ears. I went into The Winter's Tale hopeful, eager to see the legendary British company Cheek by Jowl's take on Shakespeare's tricky late romance. But I left baffled.

The long-lived British company—essentially director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod— pioneered the trend of actor-driven, highly physical Shakespeare, and it's been busy spreading that message globally for 35 years. Yet their mistakes are so basic that some of Tale feels like student work. The performers have moments of poignancy, and Ormerod's white packing-crate set is customarily elegant. But Donnellan's direction is a dizzying mash of problems. The postmodern interruptions (one scene is played as a Ricki Lake–style talk show) were tired a decade ago; he slows his actors 'til they scarcely make sense; he pushes behavior into the histrionic and then leaves it there for hours. The aesthetic seems very like the style Donnellan has—more successfully—used with Russian companies, and, tellingly, he did a much-lauded Winter's Tale there in 1999. The choices do not work at all, though, in this British production.

In the best of circumstances, The Winter's Tale can be a puzzle, since its plot grafts fairytale sweetness onto a narrative that starts in terrifying psychosis. King Leontes of Sicily (Orlando James) falsely accuses his pregnant wife Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) of infidelity with his friend Polixenes (Edward Sayer), and he demands that his courtiers take the baby and his wife and “commit them to the fire.” The dishonor kills their son Mamillius (Tom Cawte) and, seemingly, the queen. The baby Perdita is spirited away to Bohemia, where a shepherd (Peter Moreton) raises the girl into a lovely 16-year-old (Eleanor McLoughlin)—and the rest is all homecomings and pastoral romance and a weird denouement in which Hermione (alive!) pretends to be a statue.

It is not, whatever the program note says, “one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.” Even so, Donnellan's insistence on running counter to the language turns what is good in Tale into nonsense. This can happen in matters large (the play's ethos) and small. “O thus she stood, even with such life of majesty!” Leontes cries, when he sees the "sculpted" likeness of Hermione, which is sitting down. Disjunctions like these may seem minor, but they point to the possibility that after years exploring the text, Donnellan has stopped actually hearing it. More important, the director amplifies Leontes's mania into something so insane, the family relationships so unhealthy (Hermione kisses little Mamillius on the mouth to stop a full-on rage-out) that he breaks the fable-structure. The Winter's Tale may have coldness in it, but it has things to say about time and healing. Donnellan insists on a Leontes who needs a straitjacket rather than forgiveness—and accidentally deranges the play as well.

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission. Through Dec 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw    

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