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The Winter’s Tale at The Roman Theatre, St Albans

Amongst the final quartet of Shakespeare’s plays, the text alone of The Winter’s Tale brings with it many staging challenges. A tragicomedy set in two different fictional kingdoms, Sicilia and Bohemia, the production needs to create two distinct worlds but unite the differing tones and tensions into a single work. It features a key role played by a child (admirably acquitted on press night by Finn Nichols, one of the two boys sharing the role of Mamillius) and rapidly introduces the harrowing subject matter of royally-commanded infanticide, which in turn sparks even more psychodrama of Euripidean proportions, but which also forms the basis of pastoral farce in the second half of the play.

The Winter's Tale production photo by Tim Morozzo.
The Winter’s Tale production photo by Tim Morozzo.

As such, giving this work theatrical coherence within a credible dramatic universe is not an easy task. At an outdoor festival – where one cannot draw on the power of a darkened house and full-throttle stage lighting nor the acoustics of solid walls – mounting The Winter’s Tale takes even more problem-solving skill and imagination than its tricky dramatic elements already demand.

Co-directors Adam Nichols and Janet Podd use sound design and live music to build much of the show’s ambience and locations. In the Sicilian court, a string quintet, (multi-rolling as part of the ensemble) and amplified, cacophonous whispering work well as a sort of Greek Chorus of inner thoughts and rising action. Indeed, just as it was Elizabethan idiom to go ‘hear’ (rather than ‘see’) a play, the music (helmed by Musical Director Tom Cagnoni) and sound design (by Nat Casey) of this production are skilfully deployed and serve a vital purpose as well as entertain throughout.

Whereas the intensifying uxorial possessiveness and jealousy of Othello is the source of that play’s tragic trajectory, in The Winter’s Tale, the same suspicion is effectively a pre-title sequence that kicks off the action and characterises King Leontes of Sicilia (Adam Nichols) as a brutal tyrant. So far so Sophoclean – especially when the suspected bastard babe’s life is ‘spared’ only due to her father’s subsequent order that she be abandoned in the wilderness of distant kingdom, Bohemia.

Events turn more jocund, however, when a pair of Bohemian ‘rustics’, Earl (Will Prattle) and Dorthea (Emma Wright) find the new-born girl along with a royal trove of treasure left with her. For some reason, the directors have chosen to depict the Bohemians as a cartoon version of Appalachian rubes drenched in the art direction one associates with Benidorm hen weekends. Maltings prides itself on making Shakespeare accessible to a wide audience; indeed, Nichols’ adaptation and the actors’ interpretations make the story very clear. Likewise, as an anchor within a summer festival there is not only licence but in fact an expectation of entertainment. With an excellent band of versatile musicians and the Shakespearean convention of breaking the fourth wall, there is plenty of opportunity to yuck it up and have some fun even if it isn’t an obvious segue from the inciting incidents of the story.

However, what starts as a well-intentioned imperative to ‘democratise’ Shakespeare whilst crowd-pleasing with a few cabaret or panto flourishes, eventually descends into something discordant, tacky and ultimately tedious. A few anachronist song-and-dance numbers provide entertainment value; one can even endure the prolonged in-joke of the fictional Bohemians chewing the scenery with a rendition of Queen’s 1975 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to an extent. However, the gags are milked too long with the incongruous jukebox musical numbers just coming and coming to the point of my exhaustion rather than amusement. After too many turns of tinsly line-dancing to various 80s covers interspersed with geographically inconsistent Deputy Dawgesque dialect, I was ready to see the extraneous musical indulgences exiled to their perdition. Although the musicians transformed to provide a delightful bluegrass ensemble, the lily of their presence was so overly gilded that their brilliance was obscured. Had the directors quit while they were ahead, I might have been inclined to have a bop and a giggle, but ultimately these detours added more curlicues to an already rococo plot and wore me out.

This production has two directors and it shows. Co-director Janet Podd describes how she wanted to bring to life a sort of fairy story – featuring grim events, magic and high comedy. However, what neither she nor her co-director Adam Nichols (who also plays Leontes, King of Sicilia) do is bring those elements together meaningfully. Nichols focused more on directing the Bohemian elements whereas Podd took the helm of the first kingdom. Whilst Nichols’ adaptation provides impressive story clarity, his vision for Bohemia as broad and hilarious doesn’t succeed on its own terms nor does it coalesce with Podd’s somewhat more successful, if less original, vision for the first kingdom and half of the play. With strong performances, notably from Faith Turner (Paulina/Dorcas) who brought profundity and humanity opposite the horror of cruel and obsessed Leontes, and Mat Betteridge offering a regal and commanding presence as Polixenes, The Maltings’ Festival The Winter’s Tale has some winning moments. Having shone such light on the script to reveal the story and convey the classically tragic elements of it so well, it is frustrating that this production felt it needed so much scaffolding to land the laughs of the pastoral comic elements and, counterproductively, overdid the song-and-dance gags to such an extent that they were amongst the least entertaining aspects of the show, which also made the whacky deus ex machina resolution even more bizarre than it already is within the play’s intrinsically eclectic emotional notes.

For students looking for demystification of one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays, you will be rewarded with a strong interpretation of the famous bear and some fine acting within the tragic elements. If the directors could bring themselves to cut a bit of the shtick and a few of the musical numbers whilst tuning-up the accents and Bohemian wardrobe to create a richer and more textured version of the second world (and that can find a way to dovetail with the first and deliver a whole), the audience may find themselves well-entertained by the end of the summer.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Shakespeare’s timeless tragicomedy of obsession and redemption is a rollercoaster ride of courtroom dramas, mistaken identities, a man-eating bear and a beautiful statue, combining the tightly plotted excitement of a thriller with the mythical beauty of a fairytale. The Winter’s Tale weaves high drama and low comedy to tell a story of heartbreak, reunion and newfound hope. OVO and The Maltings Theatre present another inventive, entertaining and accessible take on Shakespeare, featuring live music and plenty of laughs.

The Maltings Theatre in St Albans,
curators of THE ROMAN THEATRE OPEN
AIR FESTIVAL from May 28th to July 11th,
premiere their production of
Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE on
June 30 th (press night) at 7.30pm.
THE WINTER’S TALE is co-directed by The Maltings Theatre Artistic Director Adam Nichols – who also performs as King Leontes – and Maltings Associate Director Janet Podd.

The Maltings Theatre presents The Roman Theatre Open Air Festival
The Roman Theatre of Verulamium, Bluehouse Hill, St Albans, Herts AL3 6AE
From London: 20 minutes on the train from St Pancras International
Parking: St Albans Museum, 5 minutes from venue
Dates: May 28th – July 11th at various times
www.maltingstheatre.co.uk

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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