The Winter's Tale

To be boy eternal

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 04.03.2016

Strangely enough, in this anniversary year March has turned into the Shakespeare month at the Grand Théâtre. Two very different experiences await the theatregoer as the Globe will bring us Hamlet on the 16th, while Cheek by Jowl are currently showing one of their intriguing interpretations in the Studio space. Declan Donnellan directs.

It is their fifth visit, and this time it is Shakespeare again with The Winter’s Tale, one of the four late romances. Unity of time, place and action is thrown overboard as the play moves from court to country, from tragedy (or sombre melodrama?) to comedy. It is usually referred to as a play of two halves: whereas King Leontes’s jealousy of Hermione, his wife, and of Polixenes, king of Bohemia, leads to suffering and death in the first half, which is set in Sicilia, the second half transports us to rural Bohemia, where sheep shearing and singing rule the day.

As you enter the auditorium, you see a character wrapped in heavy clothes turning her rounded back to the audience. She is waiting for everyone to find their seats and sit down so that it can all start. As soon as Act I begins, that character disappears only to return in Act IV. It is Time personified, Time who begs for our indulgence half-way through, when the play suddenly moves on sixteen years.

The simplicity of the stage (designed by Nick Ormerod) is like a breath of fresh air. A big white wooden box will later become a burial chamber as well as a house or a boat, while a longish bench turns into a speaker’s desk and two shorter benches for the trial scene. The versatility shows how well thought out this all is. It also allows us to concentrate on the acting, which holds many surprises.

There are beautiful silent moments at the beginning as the supposed love triangle – two kings and one queen – unfolds. Poses get frozen in time, which gives the characters an almost sculptural quality and creates striking tableaux…

While Hermione (a very moving Natalie Radmall-Quirke) wears high heels and an elegant dress, Leontes (an excellent Orlando James) appears in jeans among his formally dressed courtiers. He turns into a puppeteer, a stage manager at his Sicilian court. We also see him become more and more mentally unbalanced until he ends up being completely imprisoned within himself. And when Mamillius (Tom Cawte), Leontes and Hermione’s son appears, there is another surprise. He is not the usual ethereal little prince, but a stroppy young teenager who throws tantrums and fights his father.

Once we move to Bohemia, there are plenty of funny moments and carefully choreographed group scenes. Colour and music literally explode on stage. A glo­riously exuberant Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson) metamorphoses from rock’ n’ roll singer into an elderly lady, a customs officer and a TV show host. Donnellan stages the scene between the Clown, Mopsa and Dorcas as a brawl on one of those trash afternoon TV shows. The theme of jealousy revisited in comic mode! Meanwhile, in their caps and spick-and-span jackets Polixenes and Camillo look like gentlemen farmers in a Barbour advert, while Florizel at one point recalls a young David Bowie with his sleek hair and light suit.

Another character that deserves special mention is Paulina (Joy Richardson), Hermione’s lady-in-waiting who is ready to offend Leontes and speaks her mind throughout. If the king of Sicilia triggers the events in the first half of the play, she stage-manages the final statue scene, in which the rhythm slows down and candles add a beautifully poetic touch.

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have once again succeeded in making a classic new. They clearly have no museum interest in Shakespeare, but prove that even 400 years later these plays tell us a lot about ourselves, about our minds and attitudes. A triumph.

The Winter’s Tale will be showing at the Grand Théâtre tonight.
Janine Goedert
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