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The RSC returns ahead of live productions with their postponed The Winter’s Tale, ‘reimagined for the screen’ in a televised broadcast on BBC4. Most notably known for its amusing stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear”, the play tells the story of King Leontes, whose building paranoia drives him to falsely accuse his wife of adultery. Bolstered by his own arrogance and pride, he ignores the council of those around him, leading to the death of his wife and their son, and the estrangement of his new-born daughter. When he finally sees the truth, he fears it is too late to ever find atonement.
At the helm is Director Erica Whyman, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection of the seventies and eighties. Whilst it is not a mould breaking production, her approach delivers a classically staged production perfectly suited for the RSC and digestible even for those with little knowledge of Shakespeare’s works.
Setting the initial three acts in the fifties, Whyman masterfully handles this Problem Play by allowing for a distinct change of pace in its final two acts – moves into swinging sixties and flipping the play from the earlier tragic atmosphere to a comedic romance. This effect drives the energy of the show to its climax and assuages any uneasy feelings we might have about the morality of what is actually happening.
The incorporation of d/deaf performers Bea Webster and William Grint is wonderful to see, not just adding them as an afterthought (as is so often seen) but weaving their roles seamlessly into the very fabric of the production. BSL is even used between other actors to incorporate it into the world of the play as something universal, a brilliant message to theatre companies everywhere that this needn’t be something that is side-lined in productions.
Tom Piper’s set design is sparse; rather than filling the space with décor he brings a grand scale with large gated frames at the back of the stage and various small elements that come and go with the characters, relying heavily on the talented lighting by Prema Mehta to bring definition to the space from scene to scene.
The cast play their parts with conviction, displaying a total comprehension of the text and delivering it with a phrasing that is clear to the ear. Drawing my attention throughout is a stellar performance of Paulina by Amanda Hadingue, who adds incredible depth to the character and compels the audience through the moral minefield of the play with her impassioned portrayal. Other notable performances come from Anne Odeke as Autolycus and Zoe Lambert as Shepherdess.
A play peppered with classism and toxic masculinity, there is plenty to digest within Shakespeare’s words, but there’s also a great deal of faith and joy to take from them. As the RSC rebuilds, alongside other theatres, there will be a lot of talk about redefining theatre for audiences, and whilst this may be true, there are also productions like this one which are integral to the makeup of British theatre. It might not be a blockbuster show, but it is a return to a refined classical theatre, with a great helping of creativity, modernity and stage magic.
The Winter’s Tale was broadcast by BBC4 on Sunday 25th April and is now available to stream via BBC iPlayer. For more information and to watch go to BBC iPlayer’s website.