Following his Hamlet of 2010, Paul Miller returns to the Crucible with another robust if straightforward staging of Shakespeare, this time assaying The Winter’s Tale against the drab floorboards of a European court, a setting that melts into an evocation of rustic peasantry for the play’s transition to Bohemia.
It is a setting that has become almost default for the play and, in similar vein, Miller’s production runs through the motions, allowing the play to speak for itself but offering little in the way of innovation.
The first half is dominated by the dynamic between Daniel Lapaine’s Leontes (struggling at times against the acoustics of the Crucible) and Claire Price’s excellent Hermione, crystal clear and defiant. Lapaine is an unusually young and petulant King of Sicilia, brattish in his mocking laughter at Paulina and scornful in his treatment of Hermione. His unexpected gestures include taking Antigonus by the nose, replicating his infantilising treatment of Mamillius, and lounging in a throne for his casual reception of Paulina. Price’s Hermione stands in contrast as a proud and uncomplicatedly forthright public figure whose accusations, defences and oaths ring out through the space. Her ability to weather what befalls her is a key point -while her maid collapses in tears, Hermione treats Leontes’ earlier accusations as a joke before sweeping out with her women in protest. Even in the trial Hermione is smartly dressed, an upstanding presence to counter the rattled Leontes.
Jonathan Firth’s crisp Polixenes and Barbara Marten’s powerful Paulina, the latter in particular a potent presence, sweeping through the stage and cowing the young servant tasked with removing her from Leontes’ presence. At times the production even veers towards the shocking: while the rocking and crying of the doll used for the infant Perdita is a little amusing, it meant that the moment when Leontes draws his sword and uses the point to shift its hood for a better look is genuinely tense.
Yet the production feels too measured, particularly in a trial scene that sits all of its onlookers on cushioned chairs and struggles for dynamism. In the evocation of decorum the production sacrifices energy, a cost particularly apparent when the play returns to Sicilia for the closing movement. Miller offers a rather dull, happy ending, with a redemption and happiness for Leontes that feels unearned.
The Bohemia scenes, meanwhile, fall flat despite the hard work of the cast, notably Keir Charles as an Autolycus who plays two ukuleles, wears a trenchcoat covered in ballads and winks at the audience in his pursuit of the scene’s ladies. Mopsa and Dorcas both fall desperately in love with him as they sing a pleasing ballad together, and his gentle charm is a welcome relief from the calm elsewhere. The other triumph of these scenes is Patrick Walshe McBride’s high-pitched Young Shepherd, an able gull to Autolycus and an extremely entertaining ‘gentleman born’ in his final scene, affecting a pastiche of received pronunciation that gleefully sends up the noble characters.
Strong as the performances are, however, the atmosphere of the sheep-shearing is almost entirely absent. An enormous sheep’s head dominates on a platform around which the dancers gather, but even though the stage is filled with a masked crowd (featuring members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre), for the most part they stand still and listen quietly to the conversations of others.
The moments of song and dance are effective, but are punctuated by silence and feel non-organic as a result. Flashes of potential are repeatedly squandered, such as a Bear who enters ominously on all fours, loping and illuminated by lightning, but then prances comically offstage in chase of Antigonus. This is a Winter’s Tale which while sporadically amusing and often superbly performed, is lacking in momentum and offers little of the way of fresh insight into the play.