Blog: Shakespeare experimenting with the limits of contemporary drama

The Winter’s Tale is often thought of as a flexing of Shakespeare’s dramatic muscles. By the time it was written, probably around 1610, Shakespeare was well-established and overflowing with confidence, so much so that he was ready to begin experimenting with the limits of contemporary drama. By the end of Act 3, the play has reached the depths of irredeemable tragedy, and the audience wonders where the play could possibly go from there. With an impossible swoop of dramatic audacity, Shakespeare takes us from here straight into skipping pastoral comedy in the next act, and even manages to find a cohesive magical resolution in Act 5, with a cameo from a murderous bear right in the middle.

As such, the play poses a significant challenge to a director and creative team, and it might feel as though Shakespeare is sitting at the back of the rehearsal room with his arms crossed and an attitude of ‘let’s see how you cope with this then.’ But Paul Miller’s production at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has squared its jaw and risen to the challenge. The cast are given a good deal of open stage space to work with on Simon Daw’s sparse set, and the small details that he allows into the space give efficient pointers as to characters’ status and locations. Within this eloquent space, the cast tell the story with real commitment and energy.

Daniel Lapaine’s Leontes is charismatic and relatable, even into his jealous irrationality, giving a good sense of the loneliness of his self-imposed alienation during the first half. He makes the most of Leontes’ grotesque euphemisms, and his tortured to-ing and fro-ing over what to do with Hermione as the drama reaches its peak is wholly believable. He is frighteningly absurd as he assembles the court to try her, relying on the pomp of his throne, crown, robe and pale-faced lackies to uphold his tin-pot dictatorship.

Claire Price’s beatific Hermione lends credit to the character’s spotless reputation, a picture of cool, almost divine nobility. I always hope for real fire and anger from Hermione at the outrageous treatment she receives from Leontes, but Price saves her loss of cool for the very peak of Hermione’s rhetoric, as she asks Leontes, having been thrown into prison and separated from her children, “What blessings have I here alive, / That I should fear to die?”. The pastoral characters are also extremely effective, and bear the weight of the transition from the tragedy of the first half with ease and confidence. Patrick Walshe McBride as the gawky shepherd’s son and Keir Charles as the expert entertainer Autolycus are equally hilarious, while Kirsty Oswald’s Perdita and Will Alexander’s Florizel make a convincingly lovestruck couple.

Occasionally I felt that certain actors had disconnected from the action and perhaps didn’t feel the weight of the drama as heavily as they should. I could also sense the actors’ lack of confidence in the doll representing Hermione’s newborn baby when it was brought onstage; its painfully exposed stillness and mechanical cries as it lay on the floor did elicit a giggle or two from the audience, but real investment in the careful handling of it by the actors, and a sense of the immense unrest it would cause by being placed on the floor of a room would have helped us to suspend our disbelief. The famously difficult bear effect at the end of the first half was wonderfully scary despite Antigonus’ strangely unworried reaction, and the spectacular and equally famous piece of theatrical magic at the end of the play was perfectly achieved.

Paulina instructs us before the final scene’s coup de théâtre that “It is required you do wake your faith”. However, this funny, gripping and emotionally rich production makes a story requiring giant leaps of faith from an audience feel like a smooth and coherent journey.

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