Hermione and Polixenes are King Leontes’ puppets in a beautifully choreographed opening to Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale. The accused pair sit on a low central platform. Nick Ormerod’s set is characteristically pared back – a Cheek By Jowl thing – leaving almost everything to our imagination. The Queen of Sicily (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and King of Bohemia (Edward Sayer) have proved themselves to us kind and calm. As they freeze in time, Orlando James sweats out the invented distress of the King of Sicily.
His Leontes is frantic, anxious and yet totally convicted of his wife and friend’s betrayal. And disturbingly violent. He’ll later hit his beloved son and wrench his pregnant wife to the floor. Keeping the accused on stage keeps us up with any complexities in the text as Leontes manoeuvres them into the actions he’s explaining. He is a tyrannical puppet master; we’re never in any doubt of the Queen’s innocence.
Radmall-Quirke gives Hermione such composure and elegance, even if her husband had been a little more measured we’d be hard pushed to convict her. Her rhetorical measure and calm in the court room is beautifully done. It’s lucky then, that the play gives much to compel us besides, as there’s no mystery here. It’s cool to see a man in a position of power presented unreasonable and impassioned while a woman and the servants around them are the epitome of sanity. To the latter, and to us, “the Queen is spotless in the eyes of heaven.”
A black and white aesthetic with colour leant by a bright and unnatural lighting design makes this court a modern royal family. In it, the Queen tries to parent a spoilt son whose tantrums are beneath his years, apologising to the servants who have to take him. The struggles of parenting a tricky child here are an interesting addition to the story. But the play remains a firm reminder of a woman’s disempowerment according to her husband’s whim both specific to its place in history and a herald of our continued fixation with female “honesty” and chastity.
Cheek By Jowl’s staging gets messy – after such a clean first half – both in the storm and when we’re flown forwards sixteen years into the carnivalesque festivities of the sheep shearing. We are greeted by an anachronistic MC whose guitar accompanies songs and audience interaction.
All fine. I like a bit of anarchy mid-Shakespeare.
And it’s an appropriate way to divide the somber first half from the comedy of the second. The problem is the confusion this all leads into and the distraction it causes from the story.
Perhaps the issue with the comic half of this play is that the acting is inferior. There’s not much to warm us about the relationships – lovers, father and daughter, friendships. The aesthetic of the sheep shearing party is unnecessarily disunified – gawdy and glittery body con dresses next to sweet folky lace. That’s all a matter of my personal taste, but the addition (and cultural appropriation) of a Native American headdress made the whole scene unbearable. We’re then set up with a Jeremy Kyle style interview about the crazy family ties in the play which is almost as strange.
The violence laced upon the first half by the King is inflicted upon the second at border control as our shepherds try to make it to Sicilia. There’s a point that’s trying to be made here about the bureaucracy and absurdity of border crossing that falls a little flat.
All this is redeemed – appropriately – in the final redemption scene. The statue of Hermione is held beautifully in bright blue light and those who watch hold yellow lanterns. The picture we close with – of husband, son and entourage all kneeling at her feet – is ultimately a strong one of forgiveness, reunion and female empowerment. The company and director Declan Donnellan have done much to bring this brilliant and tricky play into the twenty first century but sometimes tries too hard to avoid Shakespeare’s text.
The Winter’s Tale (Cheek by Jowl) was live streamed from the Barbican Centre. It’s currently on an international tour.