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Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Winter’s Tale reminds us how much we need Theatre

The Winter's Tale
Directed by Lucy Bailey
On UK tour from 13 March - 20 April

Review by Jake McBride

Things have certainly been quite wintry for the Arts lately as the cuts continue to bite and theatres across the country lose out on funding. The gap between rich and poor looks as wide as ever and with the highs of 2012 over, there doesn’t seem to be as much to celebrate.

What better opportunity, then, but to sit back and bask in The Winter’s Tale, a play that reminds us just how much we need stories and theatre, even more so when times are tough. What the government perhaps doesn’t realise is that the harder the times are, we need theatre more than ever, not less, and Shakespeare’s play provides the perfect lesson in teaching us how art is equally capable of creating life, as life is of making art. Resolutely defying the realistic and all barriers of time, it takes us into a world of magic and romance, music and dance, thunderous oracles and stormy seas, sheep-shearing and man-eating bears. It broadly opens up the possibilities of theatre, and in turn, the possibilities of our imagination, offering us the chance to meet “with things newborn”.

Director Lucy Bailey certainly rises to that challenge with the RSC’s latest production. She is all too aware that The Winter’s Tale is exactly the sort of theatre that’s needed for hard times, grounding her production in two kingdoms that are separated primarily by class. Set in the 1860’s, the play begins with the rich Pre-Raphaelite Sicilia, before moving to a Bohemia as an industrial Lancashire sea resort sixteen years later. But the luxurious veneer of Sicilia is deceiving; it’s not long before the colourful and exotic rugs that had warmed the stage during the first act are swept away and a stark, distinctly chilling atmosphere pervades the theatre, particularly through the screen that acts as the visual backdrop of the set. Prisoners bound and gagged are thrown down along the gangways while an executioner stands ominously, sword in hand, at the centre of the stage. Leontes (played by Jo Stone-Fewings), struck seemingly from nowhere by a deep suspicion that his wife (Tara Fitzgerald) is having an affair with his friend Polixenes (Adam Levy), lets his jealousy turn him into a tyrant, destroying his closest relationships and the idyllic lifestyle they had built and shared together.

It’s not among the rich that happiness and a passion for life is to be found. The shepherds (or rather, fishermen, as they are here) of Bohemia don’t have much but they certainly make the most of it. The stage comes alive with Morris dancing, accordion-playing and Pearce Quigley as the pedlar Autolycus, swindling as many laughs from the audience through his dry delivery as he does purses from unsuspecting pockets. It’s a place free from the bitterness and envy of government, and even when Polixenes temporarily spoils the fun, it’s only after he has been pushed through a sewer and had his clothes soiled. The harsh realities of the world are never completely brushed to one side – the penitential figure of Leontes remains visible throughout, stuck at the top of a magnificent tower rising out of the stage, brilliantly designed by William Dudley. Yet the figure of Perdita (Emma Noakes) brings him back down to earth and reconciles both worlds, rich and poor, restoring warmth to what was cold before. The play ends by quite literally bringing art to life before our eyes, showing us humanity in all its fullness and how important it is that, unlike Leontes, we never lose sight of that.

Like the holidaying shepherds, the play offers only a brief respite from the pressures of work and reality, but it brings a ray of sunshine back into our everyday lives to help dispel the wintry gloom and offer hope of new things. Even at a time when little money is going around, Bailey’s production of The Winter’s Tale in particular shows us that it’s not money we need in order to have a good time and to tell a great story. All you have to do, as Paulina says, is “awake your faith” and be prepared to resolve yourself “For more amazement”.

The Winter's Tale is on UK tour from 13 March 2013

Photos courtesy of RSC, Sheila Burnett