Let’s start with David Hare and his little moan about European, ‘director’s’ theatre ‘infecting’ our dramatic tradition. I wonder if David Hare has ever seen a Cheek by Jowl production; if he’d hate The Winter’s Tale? I imagine so because it runs the full gamut of irreverent approaches to the Bard and contemporary theatre tropes. There’s video work, some shared light, audience participation, added dialogue and gags, actors in the aisles, choral singing, candlelight, and even line dancing and a Jeremy Kyle pastiche. Declan Donnellan has thrown the director’s toolkit at The Winter’s Tale and, far from catching a fatal disease, it’s given the play a kiss of life.
And it’s because this director-y stuff does more than make Shakespeare accessible with silly bits and singing, which, by the way, it does in spades. It also helps to make sense of what is a hugely problematic play. A play in which a man is eaten alive by a bear and 16 years flashes by in an instant. A play that boasts both passages of impenetrable dialogue and a straight-up bastard for a protagonist. Not a study in grief or power, but a decontextualised, stompy, abusive husband. Leontes is up there with Coriolanus: he’s just a dick. But Donnellan has mined the text and his imagination to give us a coherent context, as well as a fun-packed show.
While it’s still impossible to feel sympathy with Leontes, he now at least makes some sense. Orlando James’s floppy-haired king is the kind of upper-class, boarding school-bred, entitled manchild the British public has come to understand oh-so-well this last year or two. (I might have sighed “Oh, Eton, so much to answer for” internally at several points.) His hyper-physical play-fighting with and over-dependence on childhood pal Polixenes is sexually charged and also draws out his deep emotional immaturity. He is the kind of repressed, indulged, casually cruel man that spends his weekends in the Cotswolds.
Yet Leontes’ world is also, however, the straight-jacketed, preordained for ‘greatness’ kind, which allows the disorder of emotion to bubble away beneath the surface until it erupts through the carefully crafted exterior, only to burn everyone else in the vicinity. In Leontes’ court, the men wear full morning dress and the women are clad in the sexy business attire of a high-flying city worker: everything is black-and-white, including the king’s worldview.
And he’s given even more depth and context by a brilliantly realised Mamillius. The son is so often the sweet, simpering prince ushered in to be delightful, only to die undramatically off stage, but here Donnellan uses him to mirror the Leontes problem. Pitched as an older child, an awkward pre-teen – played with furious physical and emotional intensity by the brilliant, 19-year-old Tom Cawte – he’s a hideously spoilt brat, at once baby-fied by his nannies and indulged by his mother, with whom he has a weirdly sexualised relationship. It’s creepy. When Leontes declares him the very vision of his own self, you can well believe it. If this is what passes for parenting in Sicilia, it’s no wonder they’re all so awful. Someone call social services.
And it’s not just context-giving directorial touches that makes this Winter’s Tale so accessible and compelling; it also serves some crystal clear storytelling, with freeze-frame moments of up-close intensity contrasting with bouts of physicality, the men running laps around the stage as if endlessly trying to escape their own uncomfortable feelings. And Donnellan also has the confidence to run with the play’s neck-breaking about-face, too, seemingly rejecting any overall aesthetic coherence. Indeed, The Winter’s Tale changes style more than Madonna. While the court is played fairly straight, by the time we’re whizzed into rural Bohemia, we’re treated to the country-singing, audience-baiting conman Autolycus in painfully tight jeans, who turns full Jeremy Kyle for a smutty interrogation of the Young Shepherd’s romantic misdemeanors, before leading the whole cast in a slightly random line-dance. And the evening is no worse for it.
If all this clever, quirky stuff sounds like Shakespeare smothering, it’s not. The touring-production-chic design makes miles out of a simple white box and a few benches: it’s clever and fun without feeling tricksy. But, primarily, The Winter’s Tale relies on the breadth, depth and energy of the performances to fill the large, stark Silk Street Theatre stage, from Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s achingly regal Hermione and a slightly catty Paulina (Joy Richardson), to a believably buffooning Young Shepherd (Sam McArdle) and a thoroughly princely Florizel (Sam Woolf).
So if this text-illuminating and bloody entertaining ‘infection’ is stalking our classic plays, let’s hope it rapidly turns into an epidemic. David Hare might hate it, but he’d be wrong.
The Winter’s Tale is at the Barbican until April 22nd, and is being live-streamed online on April 19th. For more details, click here.