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First night: The Winter’s Tale

First Published 17 December 2010, Last Updated 6 June 2018

An inventive design and strong performances hold together the two very different halves of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s story of jealousy and repentance.

In terms of story, those two halves are very different indeed. The first is a dark and tragic tale in which Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is undone by jealousy over his queen’s friendship with his own best mate, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes. Suspecting the pair of adultery, he flings his heavily pregnant wife in prison and orders his loyal servant Camillo to murder his friend. But Camillo flees with Polixenes back to Bohemia. Soon after, Leontes’s young son, distraught over his mother’s banishment, is found dead. On hearing this, the queen, too, dies from grief.

As Leontes, Greg Hicks revels in the language of adultery that Shakespeare gives him, accusing his wife of being a ‘bed-swerver’ and other such delightful phrases. He is a man led by emotions, in contrast to the level-headed, strong character of his wife’s friend Paulina, played with suitable gravitas by Noma Dumezweni. She knows immediately the error of Leontes’s ways, and, when he realises it himself, encourages him in the repentance that is to last him 15 years.

The second part of the story, though very different in style, is made to seem a dream-like consequence of the first by Jon Bausor’s clever design. Sicilia is a grand, imposing place, with a beautiful glossy floor and tall bookcases that dominate the set. When Leontes’s family is detroyed at his own making, these bookcases smash to the floor and spill their contents in a dramatic physical metaphor.

The pages of the spilled books then become fully entwined in the events to come, set in Polixenes’s kingdom of Bohemia. The sheets of paper become the bear that eats Antigonus and the leaves of the trees in this bucolic, pagan place; they also make up the costumes of a troupe of dancers who parade a ritualistic – not to mention phallic – tribal dance.

Bohemia, then, is a place of love and joy, bright colours and humour. It is here where Perdita, the newborn baby daughter of the Queen of Sicilia, wound up after Leontes ordered her to be left in the wilderness. Found and raised by a shepherd, the now 16-year-old is in love with Polixenes’s son, Florizel, but Polixenes is will not allow his son to marry a lowly shepherd’s daughter. Encouraged by Camillo, who is homesick for his native country, the pair flee to Sicilia.

Like many other Shakespearean comedies, the second half of the story features several humorous interludes that deviate from the main plot. Though Brian Doherty is suitably cheeky and roguish as the scoundrel Autolycus, one can’t help but feel eager to return to the heart of the story. With a running time of more than three hours, David Farr’s production could trim a few ribbons from Bohemia without losing its essence.

Back in Sicilia, Shakespeare concludes his story with an ending that brings together the two halves, injecting a flash of colour and happiness into the 15-year-old darkness that has settled over Leontes’s land.



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