It is difficult to imagine how The Winter’s Tale might work in a black box theatre. Neither Florizel and Perdita’s pastoral scenes nor the open grandeur of courtly life would seem to lend themselves to such a small and dark interior. But in Agnes Pethers’s production, the obscurity of the black box becomes central to the show: sequinned cloths constantly shimmer in the background, and an alien blue light often only half-lights the actors. The music is eerie, and the set minimal: it is almost like walking into a cabaret club, but one that is occupied by a ‘kindly Edwardian gentleman, ensconced in an upholstered armchair by the fire, relating an old, half-remembered story’ (Jonathan Bate). Pethers’s production deals well with the strangeness of The Winter’s Tale by making it central to the show’s aesthetic.
Positioned just beyond the stage, Bate’s narrator is wonderfully adept at grounding what can otherwise feel otherworldly, verging on the ridiculous: he incorporates oracles, sea voyages and a onesie-dressed ‘bear’ into his storytelling. It is a particularly clever move to make a meta-theatrical feature of the play’s more fantastical qualities: the intimate relationship between audience and storyteller means that what is ‘real’ can be pushed far more than it might be otherwise. My only gripe was that the decision to have most of the seating on one flat platform slightly detracted from this effect: I often found it difficult to see what was happening on stage, particularly when actors spoke from the floor.
Harry Berry as Camillo, Tom Fisher as Florizel/Antigonus and Jonny Wiles as Polixenes are the stand out performances. Wiles and Berry are wonderful as they dress up in beards to spy on Florizel and Perdita (Kathryn Cussons): they provide great light relief throughout, and Berry is particularly amusing as the bashful husband-to-be of Paulina.
Kristen Cope’s choreography also contributes to this light-heartedness: dances between Hermione and Polixenes, or Florizel and Perdita, are unexpectedly touching. And what with Bate in the armchair and students playing the other parts, the decision to have a little girl play the part of Mamillius not only delights the audience (a chorus of ‘aahhs’ ensues whenever she appears) but really makes it feel as though this is a story being transferred from old to young.
But the show does have some more difficult moments. Whilst James Fairhead’s more subdued Leontes contrasts nicely with Wiles’s jovial Polixenes, Leontes’s violent emotional trajectory is not always convincing, and scenes between Leontes and Hermione (Teddy Briggs) struggle to reach tragic climax.
It is a production that sits more comfortably with the comic scenes in the play, and is at its best when it is entertaining: the second half of the play is certainly stronger than the first, led to its conclusion by the strength of Sophie Keynes’s performance as Paulina.