The Winter’s Tale is a difficult play to pull off. The sudden changes in tone, the fractured storyline, and the notoriously problematic stage direction “Exeunt, pursued by a bear” are but a few of the challenges facing the intrepid director.
This production, directed by Ellen Davnall, is essentially strong, but doesn’t have quite enough vitality to make it a truly magical experience.
The action begins in Sicilia, where King Leontes (Edwin Thomas), together with his wife Hermione (Roseanna Frascona), is persuading childhood friend Polixenes (Nicholas Pullen), the king of Bohemia, to extend his stay at their palace. Within the first few lines, Leontes mistakenly decides that Polixenes and his wife are having an affair, and it is here where the play takes its tragic turn.
From the beginning, Thomas seems at home in the lead role of the tormented king; his stage presence and focus is superb. With a bittersweet quality to his delivery, Thomas lures the audience into a false and unsettling sense of security.
But what the first half of the production lacks is the intense build-up in tragic overtones that the play itself demands. Overall, Thomas comes across as too reasonable in his ‘’outrage’ at the fantasy affair; Even the line “The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing; My wife is nothing.” is without truly tragic passion.
The drama is instead made up by two excellent performances by Frascona as Queen Hermione and Kate Wilkins as Paulina. In the court scene Frascona captures the resilience of Hermione, but also her knowing misery of what is to come.
Wilkins is suitably dogged as Paulina, one of Shakespeare’s most powerful women: when Leontes snarls “I’ll ha’ thee burnt”, she replies quickly and sharply, “I care not.”
The production picks up in the second half of the play, where the action moves to Bohemia and tragedy is replaced by comedy. This is partly due to the overacting of Jeff Howard as the Clown, who grants a helpful energy boost to the second.
Joe Eyre’s depiction of Polixenes’ son Florizel effectively makes something of a dreary part. Pullen, though, could do more as the Bohemian king himself; he lacks the regal air and stage presence needed for the role.
I was uncertain of the validity of some of the directorial decisions. The actors wait on the sides of the stage when not performing, behaving as audience members – this is to emphasise the theme of storytelling in the play. The decision is not a detrimental one, but I did fail to see what it adds to the production.
There are some nice touches though, such as when, towards the end of the bear scene, the Clown comes onstage with a teddy bear whilst describing the actual life-size bear’s attack.
Essentially, Davnall is playing it safe. In a sense, this is why, whilst definitely powerful and entertaining, the production is not as good as it could be: at the crucial moments it holds back, fearful of being called histrionic, and thus renders a tremendously moving play simply enjoyable.