The Winter’s Tale

14/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter’s Tale is famously a play of two halves, and Max Webster’s production for the Lyceum exaggerates and develops this juxtaposition in every possible way – and the result is thrilling.

This is an modern-day version of the play: ‘Sicilia’ is now Edinburgh; ‘Bohemia’ is Fife. Although Leontes (John Michie) and Polixenes (Andy Clark) are still ostensibly ‘kings’, they are presented more as middle-class business men, rich and successful, with teams of staff assisting them. The set design helps to cement the contrasts between them: Leontes’ apartment, slightly raised and framed in black, looks exactly like the glass boxes lining Edinburgh’s Quartermile; a walled-off sound-booth reinforces this image. It’s an inspired idea: those apartments look like stage-sets anyway, their fourth walls removed to allow us to peep in. And they are sterile and hard, seemingly perfect but ultimately lacking – just like Leontes’ relationship with Hermione (Frances Grey). The pastoral scenes, on the other hand, are deliberately hokey. The fake grass is rolled out before us: there is no attempt at realism here. The props are more panto than serious Shakespeare, all bright-bunting and shopping trolleys and rickety wooden stuff. The costumes  all look hand-made, in a local am-dram kind of way. It’s hard to imagine we’re watching the same play. Polixenes  is a big fish here, but he’s in a very different kind of pond.

The contrasts are further underlined by both dialogue and acting style. While acts one, two, three and five retain Shakespeare’s original language, act four has been recast in Scots, an audacious undertaking performed with evident delight by writer James Robertson. The performances are mismatched too: whereas the Sicilian scenes are very serious and actorly, the Bohemian scenes are played for laughs, with comedic exaggeration and audience interaction; it’s beautifully done.

If I’ve a criticism of this play – and I haven’t much – it’s that the fayre goes on too long, without adding much to the plot. It is a lovely interlude, and the scene-setting is vital, but it starts to drag after a while: we want to know what happens next.

The performances here are universally strong, but Maureen Beattie’s Paulina is a definite stand-out; she imbues the character with warmth, vitality and strength. The musicians, led by composer Alasdair Macrae, deserve a mention too: their on-stage accompaniment is integral to the story-telling, and their presence adds a strange unearthliness that really elevates the play.

Do get yourself along to the Lyceum to see this: it’s really rather wonderful.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield

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