Blanche McIntyre returns to the Globe to direct a new production of The Winter’s Tale. It was last seen at the Shakespeare’s Globe site in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2016 (not long after the Branagh Theatre Company had finished their run of the same play at the Garrick), and now forms part of the ‘Emilia’ arc running through the season. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, which falls in between the usual genres, it is another that explores the power of jealousy and the effect of a tyrannical rule.
Leontes (King of Sicilia) and Polixenes (King of Bohemia) have been friends since childhood; when Leontes fails to persuade his friend to extend his visit, but his wife Hermione succeeds, it sparks a toxic suspicion about his wife’s fidelity which leads to Hermione’s imprisonment on the grounds of treason. She gives birth prematurely to their second child, though Leontes refuses to acknowledge the daughter as his own and gives orders for her to be taken far away and left out in the wilderness – fortunately she is found by a passing shepherd and raised as her own. In Bohemia. 16 years pass, and Perdita (the baby so named due to her ‘lost’ status) has grown up and fallen in love with Florizel, Polixenes’ son who frequently absents himself from court. His father discovers their relationship and throws all kinds of threats their way, causing the couple to make the decision to flee to Sicilia. Will they be allowed to live in peace? And will anyone realise Perdita’s true identity?
It’s an interesting play to be performing at this time, as it looks at both a world under threat from a tyrant as well as showing women against the patriarchy – including some incredibly empowered female characters. McIntyre’s decision to make Sicilia a more exotic (and initially utopian) setting to contrast with a Bohemia that’s very recognisable to us works well on a number of levels – not least to show the change before and after Leontes’ jealousy takes hold, but also making it appear more mystical assists in making the fairytale ending feel more in keeping with the place.
James Perkins’ designs play a major part here, with some sumptuous Eastern robes for the Sicilians, and anoraks & wellies for the country folk of Bohemia. Sensibly, there isn’t really a set or backdrop of any kind – instead, the company makes good use of the stage and the yard, keeping the audience very much included in what’s going on.
Stephen Warbeck has provided some wonderful compositions, which are performed animatedly by a five-strong band in the gallery; the mix of instruments such as accordion, clarinet and mandolin give it quite a folksy feel at times, which is at its absolute best during the sheepshearing festival (and the fantastic jig at the end).
This production has been cast exceptionally well, with a company that understands both what they’re saying and the emotion behind it – as well as being game enough to play with the audience at appropriate times. Will Keen does an exceptional job as Leontes; you can actually see the rage bubbling up inside him until he’s unable to control it any longer, shaking with anger as the jealousy takes hold. As the run goes on, he could potentially make the audience more complicit in his plans against Hermione, though he is already very engaging in the role.
Sirine Saba is truly excellent as Paulina, exuding the authority she clearly feels she has, and showing tremendous wit in the process. Her delivery is exquisite, with snappy comic timing in her retorts to Leontes. Becci Gemmell is absolutely fantastic value as Autolycus, whether she’s picking pockets or arriving at the festival atop her own lurid merchandise stall. Making the character female adds a twist, as Autolycus has an extra weapon in the arsenal when trying to beguile the Bohemians out of their belongings: her sexuality. Though it’s sparingly used, as she’s pretty good at conning people out of their money anyway! It also makes for a trio of lost & discarded women (alongside Hermione & Perdita), as Autolycus was previously a servant of Florizel’s until she lost her position.
Mention must also go to the brilliant Annette Badland, who nearly manages to steal every scene she’s in as the old shepherd, and is a hoot in the jig. Her partnership with Jordan Metcalfe (who plays her onstage son) is terrifically entertaining – they quickly become firm favourites with the audience!
My verdict? An enlightening production of a potentially troublesome play, fantastically well conceptualised & beautifully designed – complete with some memorable & scene-stealing performances.
The Winter’s Tale runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 14 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.