Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 6 February 2016

Review: The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ⋄ 28th January - 22nd April 2016

“Director Michael Longhurst energetically tackles all the perceived problems with the ‘problem play.’” Dave Fargnoli reviews Exeunt’s favourite Shakespeare.

Dave Fargnoli
Tia Bannon and Steffan Donnelly in The Winter's Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Tony Larkin.

Tia Bannon and Steffan Donnelly in The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Tony Larkin.

As a piece of writing, The Winter’s Tale comes in for a lot of criticism. It has been called uneven and badly paced; it’s full of inconsistencies and unlikely stage directions; and it revolves around an unlikeable, un-relatable, homicidally jealous Sicilian king.

All this might very well be true on the page, but like the best stories, the beauty of this tale is in the telling. Director Michael Longhurst energetically tackles all the perceived problems with the ‘problem play,’ consistently dancing along the fine lines between pathos and absurdity, between faithfulness to the text and knowing self-awareness. Every moment is carefully loaded with the right mixture of passion and humour, filling the production with warmth despite the bleak midwinter setting. In fact, in the candle-lit intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse it is downright cosy, a tall tale expertly told in front of a crackling fire.

The space is used to its fullest, with actors clambering over the audience, scaling columns, lowering garlands from the galleries, lending the play a sense of movement that stands in sharp contrast to the turgid slog-through-snow some other productions can become.

John Light makes a striking, almost schizophrenic Leontes, so full of bile he’s practically doubled over, sometimes pacing like a wounded animal, sometimes crawling on his belly, turning himself inside out over his wife’s imagined betrayal. His descent through obsession, rage, guilt and grief is clear and believable. In contrast, Rachel Stirling is regal and dignified as his queen Hermione, really shining with feeling when she lets her façade drop. Their tearful, transformative reunion is exquisitely tender.

Led by Stephen Bentley-Klein on violin, a band provides accompaniment throughout, adding to a palpable sense of building tension in the opening scenes with flurries of scratching strings reminiscent of a Bernard Herrmann score. As the scene shifts from the icy paranoia of the palace to pastoral Bohemia, there are bursts of raucous, rustic barn-dances and some particularly magical wineglass playing.

That often-jarring change – as the action fast-forwards sixteen years and the tone snaps from Tragedy to Comedy – is made effortless here, in no small part thanks to Sam Cox, whose turn as the stolid old shepherd demonstrates a real mastery of timing and understatement, neatly smoothing over the cracks.

With the whole company totally committing, they manage to land every one of Shakespeare’s odd beats, and this includes theatre’s most infamous exit, pursued by a bear. With all the lights extinguished except for one flickering lantern, the moment becomes a glorious piece of blink-and-miss-it business, halfway between horror and he’s-behind-you pantomime – and it’s great. Early on, when they bring in the doll representing baby Perdita, Tia Bannon (who grows up to play her in the second half) steps in to provide vocalisations for the infant, and she gets the gurgles and wails so pitch-perfect that they would melt any stony heart. The production even copes with the notorious overabundance of rustic songs, making each one just a little bit different, a little bit surprising, until suddenly there’s a troupe of satyr acrobats pulling off a sexy, unsettling Haka and it all feels quite normal.

The challenge and the magic of this show is in keeping everything on just the right side of ludicrous, despite the occasional blurting trumpet or mysteriously opening door, despite the character’s credulity, despite the nagging feeling that Bohemia is actually land-locked and fairly difficult to reach by ship. This is one of those performances that pulls the audience along with it, so that all the plot contrivances and animal attacks, magic statues and misadventures feel natural, like integral parts of a sumptuous fairy tale.

The Winter’s Tale is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 22nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.


Dave Fargnoli is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Show Info

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by William Shakespeare

Cast includes John Light, Rachel Stirling, Simon Armstrong, Niamh Cusack, Tia Bannon, Sam Cox



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