Review: The Winter’s Tale – RSC @ Roundhouse ****

A light smattering of snow fell, lending the Roundhouse a festive appearance.  The smell of mulled wine and mince pies was in the air, and as the audience were greeted by Jon Bausor’s luxuriously appointed Victorian drawing room, it was hard not to feel warmly disposed towards this Winter’s Tale.

The remnants of a Christmas feast strewn across the table, the bonhomie of Darrell D’Silva’s avuncular Polixenes, the fecund sensuality of Kelly Hunter’s blooming Hermione were all juxtaposed intelligently with Greg Hicks taut and wired performance as Leontes.  As Jon Clark’s lush, golden hued lighting design changed abruptly to a stark, white state, so too was there a perceptible chill in the air as Hicks switched abruptly from amiable host to tortured husband.

Dazzlingly handling the change in mood, augmented by Keith Clouston’s multi-layered score, Hicks performance is nothing short of virtuoso.  He careens electrifyingly through the text at lighting speed, like a Catherine wheel spewing fire.  Hicks spits out lines with barely suppressed rage, savouring every delicious plosive.  At this pace, as he hurtles out of control, tormented by jealousy, Leontes’ thought processes become rash and hurried, lending a clarity to the plot that is sometimes absent.

Noma Dumezweni excels as the fearless Paulina, bringing an emotional centre to Leontes’ barren court

Control is a key theme of David Farr’s excellent production, he contrasts the intelligence and austerity of Sicilia, represented by two towering bookcases which dominate the set, with the pastoral silliness of Bohemia.  The rigidity and mores of Victorian England collapse, literally, in a coup-de-theatre which gives way to a dappled arcadia.  Books are shredded to create the landscape and Bohemia is rather more pagan than its elegant  counterpart.  The camp buffoonery does wear a trifle thin however, and the more relaxed Bohemia acts lack pace, although, thanks to Arthur Pita’s pagan choreography, not energy.

There are problems with The Winter’s Tale, it never quite marries the drama with the comedy or the pastoral romance, it requires Herculean feats of suspension of disbelief, not to mention the brief appearance of a bear, but in Farr’s hands, and with this ravishing ensemble, these are almost resolved. Noma Dumezweni excels as the fearless Paulina, bringing an emotional centre to Leontes’ barren court, Brian Doherty enjoys every last morsel of his rambunctious Autolycus while Gruffudd Glyn delivers a scene-stealing turn as the Young Shepherd.  Throughout, the text is lucid and intelligently delivered.  And the bear?  A glorious, giant puppet fashioned from the torn pages of Sicilia’s library.

There is a perfect harmony in this production, in which design, direction, and performance all work together to create a near-perfect piece.  A ‘sad tale for winter’?  No, an uplifting and ultimately redemptive one.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until  1st January 2011
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