Directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, Cheek by Jowl’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’, The Winter’s Tale, is a daring, vibrant and challenging modern-dress production that is unmissable for all theatre fans.
For anyone unaware of the plot, The Winter’s Tale follows jealous King Leontes who falsely accuses his wife, Hermione, of infidelity with his best friend. The fallout of this is not only Hermione’s death, but the exile of his newborn daughter Perdita. Flash forward sixteen years, and we find ourselves watching Perdita as she is raised by shepherds and falling in love with the son of Leontes’s friend. This turbulent play explores loyalty, fidelity and reconciliation, and it is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s finest works.
This adaptation stands out because of its excellent staging, set design and use of space. Opening on an almost bare stage, with only a white bench defining the Court of Sicillia, the play strips the action to its bare minimum so to focus on the intense family drama. Audiences watch on a silent prologue as two actors dance (whether this is in conflict or intimacy, it is entirely up to our own discretion). The minimal staging allows actors to manipulate the space to their advantage, juxtaposing stillness with chaos to highlight the increasing danger and drama. Every action is filled with loaded meaning, so you can’t take your eyes off the stage for a single second.
As the play progresses, the staging then develops to include a video screen backdrop that serves to provide close-ups of characters’ faces. This was particularly poignant during Hermione’s trial, as we focus on the frightening rage on Leonte’s face as he accuses his wife of the worst possible crime: infidelity. Original and unique, the backdrop provides a more intimate portrayal of the themes running through the play, exaggerating the emotions of the characters.
As for the actors themselves, each one was exceptionally talented in their own right, with Orlando James particularly noticeable for his role as Leontes. Brilliantly portraying the King’s unlikable nature and jealousy, the actor whirls around the stage in rage and power, humorously arranging the bodies of Hermione and Polixenes into lustful positions of his imagination. He’s psychotic and totally insane, but in the same breath, the audience cannot help but feel pity for him.
Natalie Radmall-Quirke plays a dignified Hermione, as her genuine fear of her husband’s mental instability is exemplified through her facial expressions. The performance I will remember the most, however, is that of Mamillius. As a terrifying mini-Leontes, the character is a much more central figure in this adaptation. In a scene I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, he flings himself to the ground, screaming at the top of his lungs in jealousy of his unborn sibling. He scarily epitomises the rage and instability of his father, bringing the familial tension to the forefront of the production.
The time shift between the madness of the first act and the comedic second half, which defines Shakespeare’s work as a ‘problem play’, is represented by the transformation of the set. We see the space turn into a TV studio, mirroring that of The Jeremy Kyle Show. Autolycus takes on the persona of a guitar-strumming, witty shepherd as he abandons Shakespeare’s text for audience-baiting and musical hits. You can’t help but laugh at the bizarre turn of events, as sheep-shearing festivals and jokes about impotency provide a much-needed comedic relief from the previous tension. Despite the fun of this section, I have to say that I much preferred the drama of the earlier scenes.
Being a whopping two hours and twenty-five minutes in length, my only other criticism of The Winter’s Tale is its pacing. At times, the scenes tended to drag as soliloquies and conversations felt like they were lasting forever. At the expense of excessive detail the performance provided, it could have benefited from being slightly shorter in length.
Finally, the coming to life of Hermione’s statue at the end was wonderfully framed, and beautiful to watch, as the reunited family embrace while the ghost of Mamillus walks on, overlooking everything that he could have been a part of. Creating an eerie atmosphere to such a famous moment in the text, it is clear that the popular reading of reconciliation at the end is abandoned for a message of how nothing has changed; there is still a dead child and an incredibly unhinged king who has not learnt from the past.
Overall, Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale is possibly one of the most thought-provoking, intelligent and challenging adaptations of Shakespeare’s play performed yet. Original, innovative and exciting in its performance, I thoroughly recommend this to any theatre fan looking for something new and different to watch during Lockdown 2.0.
Words by Lucy Lillystone.
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