As the England football team sails through another world cup qualifier, it seems an appropriate time to steal a cliché from that sport. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale really is a play of two halves.
The first finds Simon Russell Beale’s paranoid King Leontes of Sicilia hitting the big red self-destruct button, banishing his best friend, the King of Bohemia, his newborn daughter, and imprisoning his wife, all for doing what they were told.
The second takes place 16 years later in Bohemia – in this production resembling the rural US golden age musicals – where the now-teenage evicted daughter, brought up a shepherdess, has fallen in love with the King of Bohemia’s son. Of course, she neither knows of his or her own royal blood. The tragedy of jealousy is left behind and replaced with a pastoral comedy to keep us smiling to the end.
It is a distinctly odd combination, more double-bill than one smoothly flowing play. Even the characters only partially overlap.
The piece, presented alongside The Cherry Orchard, marks the UK return of former Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Sam Mendes, who has become a force in Hollywood since last he worked in a West End theatre. He, with the help of Mark Bennett’s music, Anthony Ward’s design and Paul Pyant’s lighting, keeps the flavours of the two halves distinct.
Somber Sicilia is a dark and moody place, even before Russell Beale’s heartbreaking jealous breakdown, the result of which sees Rebecca’s Hall’s Queen Hermione, previously blooming and spirited in pregnancy, transformed into a broken and emaciated façade of her former self. Its atmosphere, somewhere between beauty and gothic horror, is reflected in the candle-lit backdrop resembling stars in a threatening night sky.
These are replaced in Bohemia with brightly coloured balloons, the decoration of a simpler country, where Ethan Hawke, delighting – and occasionally camping it up – in the role of a shape-shifting con man balladeer, is barely troubled to part the locals from their money. This is a place of dancing and bawdiness, frivolity and fun, until the question of royalty rears its head.
And what of The Winter’s Tale’s most famous episode, and arguably Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction? Well, there is a bear, and there is an exit, but I didn’t notice much of a pursuit.