By Danielle Farrow
It is only natural to expect a fine show from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Their current production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Lucy Bailey and designed by William Dudley, offers a strong concept in seemingly idyllic Sicilia, where King Leontes almost destroys all through hideous jealousy, contrasted with industrial seaside Bohemia (seen in holiday mode), where his long-lost daughter appears, bringing new hope to both kingdoms. There is also a well known actor in Tara Fitzgerald as Queen Hermione and an RSC stalwart in Jo Stone-Fewings as Leontes. However, the actors seem to be fighting a concept and design that often muddies the text and overwhelms them in performance to the extent that an audience member’s remark of “I enjoyed every minute of that” came as a great shock. So, as ever, reactions are subjective and can differ greatly.
For this reviewer, three highly flawed equations stood out:
1. distracting visuals, with empty CGI = atmosphere
2. loud noise, especially discordant sounds = drama
3. yelling = emotion
Yelling was also a substitute for proper vocal projection, lacking in many key supporting characters.
Possibly those able to see every element of performers’ features felt connection in the performances of Fitzgerald and Fewings, but any true depth of feeling did not carry. That said, Fitzgerald avoided fully succumbing to equation No. 3 (yelling = emotion) and both these principals handled Shakespeare’s language with a fine flow and understanding, providing strong moments: Fewings in Leontes’ agony and Fitzgerald in Hermione’s dignity.
As Autolycus (a pick-pocketing, swindling and hilarious peddler), Pearce Quigley stole the show, ably supported by the entertaining young and old shepherds of Nick Holder and David Shaw-Parker respectively. Honourable mention, too, goes to RSC newcomers Bethan Walker and Ben Whybrow in minor roles for their simple, unstrained clarity. Some of the musical interludes also entertained (though adding to duration time), including clog dancing Morris men.
Projections of scenery, with bizarre perspectives and a bear walking on water, were mostly distracting. Bailey’s concept of Bohemia and Sicilia as separate classes of one whole is only clear in the programme and questions Bohemia (the good old, often crude, working class) having a king at all, let alone one clearly on a par with Leontes, king of Sicilia (the deluded ivory-tower-separated upper class) and his bosom buddy from childhood. Clashing, crashing sound and dark lighting signifying Leontes’ mental state overshadowed all that needed to be present in the playing instead, and the metal tower on which Leontes makes his penance – while visually interesting – raised him out of sight for many.
As an example of design over performance and of how even the most famous companies can present flawed productions, this Winter’s Tale is worth seeing – and there will be people who enjoy it. For many wanting performances that make you care, however, with a concept and design that actually supports the actors, this production is unlikely to satisfy at all.
Until 6th April 2013, 19:30 (22:30) and 4th & 6th matinees at 14:30 (17:30) @ Festival Theatre