The Winter’s Tale rides on the tailcoats of the Shakespeare Sessions’ summer success, Much Ado About Nothing, blinkered by and adorned with 5-star reviews from every angle. Though The Winter’s Tale is not as inherently crowd-pleasing as Much Ado, director Ross McGregor has jam-packed it with style and tone.
The intimate space is enhanced by a thrust setup and transformed immediately into a steampunk-themed world with chalk-drawn airships and utilitarian bare bulbs carried through with striking costumes of modern corsets and Victorian-esque nautical goggles. All of which ensure that the audience is strapped in and ready to embark on a fairytale ride into a story that overturns stones of jealousy, corruption, death, love and fate as it powers through everything from merriment to court cases, a deserted newborn and even a bear. It is a whirlwind of measured comedy and tragedy strung together by the company’s strong adherence to their steampunk style and audience engagement therein. The production is only let down when this style is diluted by adding too much to the mix. In a bid to display the vast tool belt of skills that the company possesses, movement and song for example, it sometimes becomes over-stylised and loses the drive of the story itself.
The first half tells of Leontes (Christopher Neels), King of Sicily, becoming enveloped in jealousy and madness to the detriment and death of his kingdom, family and everything in between. Leontes’s swelling madness is indicated by asides to the audience that are highlighted by abrupt lighting changes casting those in the background into a blue shadow as he is spot-lit in his moments of intense doubt. Though conceptually clever, the lighting cues were a little slow thus diminishing its conspicuousness. Neels’s performance was volatile, succeeding in building a sincerely uncomfortable atmosphere. Leontes’s wife Hermione (Elizabeth Appleby) is publicly shamed and incarcerated, losing her name, her children and her life in one fell swoop whilst remaining dignified and innocent throughout. Appleby’s portrayal was absolutely the standout performance: she sails seamlessly from unsuspecting mother – good-humoured and doting – to a powerhouse of emotional strength that gave the entire audience noticeable goosebumps. Hermione’s ally and backbone Paulina’s (Hannah Ellis) strong and unquiverable characteristics are matched by Ellis’s nuance-ridden and assured performance.
When set against the darkness and structure of the first half the second half appeared far less polished. The comedic intentions were there, surfacing our emotions in preparation, but presented amongst confusion as the narrative seemed lost amongst the laughs. As fate takes its toll within the plot and the strings of the story are tied together, the fluidity of the production is restored beautifully, particularly in the final scene in which reunion and love where those goosebumps resurface instantaneously.
Shakespeare Sessions impeccably retells Shakespeare imaginatively, resourcefully and with a newfound will to make it accessible to new generations. I felt completely and utterly entertained: exhausted from being dragged through a range of emotions, along a narrative with more peaks and troughs than a theme park. No mean feat – and they do so with such conviction that their productions are at once enticing, engaging and exciting, even to the old hats.
The Winter’s Tale is playing at the Lion and Union Theatre until 3 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website. Photo by Davor Tovarlaza.