Shakespeare wrote many plays – 38 to be exact – and only now can I confess that I’ve seen his psychological, semi-comedic drama, The Winter’s Tale. That may sound pretty shocking for a theatre enthusiast, but I am glad I waited for Cheek by Jowl’s production, presented at the Silk Street Theatre of The Barbican, for a brilliant and insightful undertaking.
Declan Donnellan has directed Shakespeare’s imagined world of jealous kings, angry gods and unconditional love at the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia and transferred them onto a contemporary platform. Cleverly done, I managed to understand the threads of each plot without having studied the sophisticated dialogues, previously. It is to the masterful cast, too, that brought their characters to life and made every moment engaging and entertaining.
Opening with Nick Ormerod’s minimal stage, Leontes, the King of Sicily, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, chase each other and play together like two young boys. Then the hopeful mood changes. Orlando James was vigorous and emotive as he spilled the deeper thoughts of his character – Leontes’s insecurity of his queen and his best friend’s secret affair. Piercing and intense James stared into the audience as if looking for confirmation for the king’s vicious suspicions while Natalie Radmall-Quike’s Hermoine, the Queen of Sicily, was cool and serene. Her demure embodiment was compelling, and seeing her forgiveness of the king at trial was heartbreaking. That alongside her evoking of being kicked in the ‘pregnant’ stomach by her husband was shocking.
Tom Cawte as the king’s brattish son, Maxmillius was convincing and energetic. He rolled around the stage with stomps and tantrums that were loud and deliberately annoying, enough to understand why he was as needy and attention-seeking as his angry and blood-boiling father. Eleanor McLoughlin performed as Perdita, the abandoned daughter of the king who is brought up by a Shepherd and his son. She provided a pretty, sweet and innocent depiction yet showed small signs of frustration leading back to her royal lineage to Leontes, which she is unaware of.
Peter Moreton, as the Old Shepherd and Antigonus, and Joy Richardson, as Paulina, gave memorable performances as well. Intelligent usage of lights through Judith Greenwood also influenced the ominous mood with loud thunderbolts to wake and shake up the audience.
There were numerous times I was deeply moved by the cast’s performances. One of which was seeing both mother and son dead, and James’s realistic cry of remorse and grief. The ultimate, and my favourite, scene was the final one where the stone-cold statue of Hermoine becomes alive and unites with her lost daughter and king. The lights were low and only a few candle lights were held up by the performers to a still and unrushed scene. Radmall-Quike was highly skilled and steady – hardly a flinch for more than five minutes.
The subplot (or what I felt was a subplot,) was Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus. His unique stage presence, interesting way with the audience and handsome ‘Ryan Gosling’ looks made him a great comedy break away. This goes down to the TV show gimmicks as a low budget Jerry Springer and random line dancing, though sadly I didn’t see how this had any relevance to the main plot. Autolycus deserves his own play, particularly if it is performed by Ryan Donaldson.
Funnily enough, I saw this show because it was an anniversary gift. It was pointing out to me that it was an ‘interesting choice’, but bloody, heartbroken, fierce, or sweetly romantic as The Winter’s Tale is, it is a tale with incredible prose that is easily accessible for anyone in the English-speaking world. Whether or not the audience is from the 16th or, even, the 21st century, Shakespeare’s words speak to many audiences in an approachable manner and smart directing from companies such as Cheek by Jowl are the perfect antidote for those who may be intimidated by Shakespeare’s works. I would go as far as saying that Cheek by Jowl can make non-theatregoers believe in Shakespeare.