Erica Whyman’s RSC production has had a difficult birth. With its upcoming performances eagerly anticipated and tickets nigh sold out, it fell victim to the Covid pandemic just before the opening night, and was cancelled. Whyman went ahead, though, with the same admirably inclusive cast and adapted it for a television performance in response to the BBC’s offer of a slot in its Lights Up season. It thus became the first RSC production ever to premier on screen.
Tom Piper’s sets and Madeleine Girling’s costumes are the stars of the show. Both took the opportunity that the 16 year gap in the action presents to designers. The dark, sombre rooms of the early scenes, which include a courtroom and a prison, give way to a beautiful, light, summer paradise. The dull mud-coloured costumes of the 1950s are replaced with the more adventurous decorative outfits of the late sixties, the men at court now wearing near-colourful ties and the women patterned blouses. The rural scene is a visual treat with set and costume design combining in a nostalgic look at the age of hippies and flower power.
The production captures Shakespeare’s contrasts in other ways too. The court/rural tension of his late plays is strong in The Winter’s Tale and Whyman has the courtiers talking in southern English accents in contrast to the northern accents of the country folk. The courtiers talk in verse and the shepherds in prose. It’s interesting that while Perdita speaks in verse, reflecting her noble birth, she has a northern accent. She would, of course, because of her upbringing and that may be a minor flaw in this version, but once deciding on a northern accent for the country folk there was no way around it.
Autolycus comes on stage on a scooter and introduces herself with a song. Isobel Waller-Bridges’ music is a superb introduction to the lighter, comic, second half of the play and Anne Odeke plays Autolycus with conviction. Autolycus was an important character in the Jacobean theatre as he was the main agent for turning the play into a near pageant, a fashionable genre at the time. The second half is a clearing of the dark clouds engendered by the first half. The rural scenes are delightful as the stage is filled with singing, dancing figures. The young lovers – Georgia Landers as Perdita and Assad Zaman as Florizel – do not make much of an impact, however, and there is no particular feeling of their being major characters, although Georgia Landers is very lively and watchable.
While there is a clear division between the first and second half there is more to it than just the sixteen year gap: there is a complete change from darkness and despair to a light-hearted tone. Shakespeare is doing the same thing here as he does in Romeo and Juliet, but in reverse, with the comedy in the second, rather than in the first, part. In Romeo and Juliet he marks the change with a huge dramatic event – the killing of Tybalt by Romeo. In The Winter’s Tale it is the famous moment just before Antigonus is ripped into shreds by a bear.
Ms Whyman missed a trick there. The event is actually funny. The stage direction is in itself funny but the Elizabethan players would have made it hilarious. The audience has gone through a harrowing time up until now but suddenly things change. A comic actor comes on dressed in a bear costume and he and Antigonus effect a performance that makes the audience laugh. The baby’s life is saved and the next thing we see is one of the things the audience liked most: entertainment – lots of music, dance and romance. The bear episode sets the scene for that. Ms Whyman has missed that opportunity. She presents the event with shadowy figures making gestures that we wouldn’t understand if we didn’t already know that Antigonus was being pursued by a bear, with not a hint of the jollity to come.
Amanda Hadingue, as Paulina, stands out among the cast and it’s her performance that gives life to Whyman’s vision of a court cowering before their paranoid and hysterical king, who is at the same time a kind of fascist. She is the only one with the courage to stand up to him. Although many of Shakespeare’s lines are cut from the performance script, Whyman adds a line to it to reinforce her vision of Leontes. At one point he asks the courtiers whether he has done well. The first lord says “well done, my lord,” and the director’s inserted line has the second lord echo that.
But the play is not about political authoritarianism. It is a domestic story, featuring a faithful wife and a jealous husband and the attempt to make it something else distracts from the meaning of Leontes. Furthermore, one has to say that Joseph Kloska fails to present a credible Leontes. Shakespeare has provided him with the poetry of a man in anguish. No matter how misguided he is, he feels that pain. Joseph Kloska screams out every line, with no change in tone, his voice rising to the pitch of a teenager with a breaking voice, rendering his dialogue meaningless. One can’t help thinking about how a John Giulgud might have applied himself to the task of speaking that great poetry.
That points to a general shortcoming of this production, which is that for the most part the actors shout, and it becomes annoying. Perhaps their preparation for a theatre performance with an audience has something to do with that. The kind of realism that characterises screen performances doesn’t exist in the theatre where the audience accepts the need for voice projection. It doesn’t work on screen.
That may be why this production doesn’t quite make it. Intended for a stage that turned out to be unavailable the decision was made to film the stage version but nothing much was done to think it through. It seems that the production cannot make up its mind whether it’s a stage or screen performance and it falls between the two stools. Without the dynamic, even magical, negotiation between performers and a live audience, just watching a static view of a stage with actors behaving as though they were performing to an audience, but without its feedback, tends to become tedious, particularly when there is no interval. Ms Whyman might have considered Trevor Nunn’s 1979 television adaptation of Macbeth.
All in all, this is an old-fashioned production without a great deal to fire up the audience’s imagination.