27/6/09, RSC (Courtyard, Stratford)
Written by Penelope
The Winter's Tale is the one with the bear, and the most famous stage instruction of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear". It's not the easiest scene to pull off: real bears aren't plentiful in Warwickshire these days and men in large brown costumes can look absurd. But the best thing about this RSC production is its design. Designers don't often get a mention, but Jon Bausor has got to the heart of the play with his clever use of both set and costumes. His bear is a kind of large puppet operated by two men which engulfs the unfortunate Antigonus.
The play opens in Leontes' lavish palace where a banquet is starting. The set is gorgeous. The table is laden with food and candles and the room is surrounded by skyscraper-high bookshelves.
I must admit that the key moment in the play is baffling to me. Why does Leontes manage to persuade himself that his loving and hugely pregnant wife, Hermione, is being unfaithful to him because she does exactly as he asks her, and persuades Polixenes to stay in their house longer? His misconception and jealous rage cause much of the subsequent tragedy in which Hermione and their son die, and his daughter is lost to a shepherd. And Shakespeare doesn't help us out very much with an explanation.
The play proceeds with great pace. Greg Hicks as Leontes is by turns affectionate, irrational and repentant, with a good deal of self-pity thrown in. It's a good performance. He's described as a tyrant several times and Hicks achieves this, without you losing all sympathy for him later on when he gets his second chance. Hermione's role isn't huge, but Kelly Hunter pulls off being tragically misunderstood without being a total victim, which can't be easy. For me, one of the strongest performances was Noma Dumezweni as Paulina. She has a strong, clear voice and gives great passion and meaning to the verse. Her honesty and integrity are crucial to Leontes' realisation that he was wrong. Samantha Young as Perdita is both acrobatic and girlish, she portrays the comedy and tragedy of her role with aplomb.
But back to the design. The costumes are beautiful: smart suits, uniforms, rags, dancing sheep, the aforementioned bear and travelling musicians all look great. The first half ends with Leontes' realisation of his mistake and as he says "come and lead me unto these sorrows", the bookshelves collapse around him and every single book lands with a thud on the stage and papers swirl into the stalls. It's really effective and dramatic.
I've been to the Globe but this was my first time seeing a production in Stratford and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Having the audience on three sides, with the musicians above the stage does allow you to see Shakespeare more as he intended than many of the London theatres can achieve.