THE WINTER'S TALE
Theatre Royal, Brighton/touring
Opened 5 May, 1999

Cheek By Jowl and the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg have enjoyed a long association, whose culmination to date is Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod's production for the Maly of this late Shakespearean romance the first show by a British director to win Russia's Golden Mask award for best production.

As ever, and as most recently seen in his French Le Cid, Donnellan picks out the Ariadne's thread of narrative without stultifying the imaginative faculties. Indeed, the opening scene looks uncannily like that earlier Corneille production, as the court of Sicilia appears clad in the same dress uniforms, vaguely antiquated but suggesting no period precisely. Eras brush up against each other constantly, particularly in the pastoral scenes: Autolycus, played by Sergei Vlassov as the kind of bunco artist increasingly familiar in the new Russia, sports a bogus "INVALID" placard, distracts the Young Shepherd by placing a pair of headphones upon his ears, and thus in a nice running gag steals the money in the poor fool's bum-bag; the accordionist at the sheep-shearing feast plays a rustic twelve-bar blues as the men and women sit on opposite sides of the stage in the timeless and universal ritual of "who's going to be the first to ask for a dance?".

Bell chimes cue changes of mood or mode, as with Leontes' first soliloquy in which he nurses his groundless jealousy; after this start, Pyotr Semak's performance grows with a wonderful organic quality, first in furious, envious malice, then in emotional ruination, left the husk of a man but for his repentance. He even cuffs his young son a couple of times, as does the Old Shepherd later with his adopted daughter (and, by now, Leontes' only surviving child) Perdita; however, in the latter instances, each time the Shepherd raises a hand, he instantly clasps her to him in a loving, penitent embrace.

As the tale of jealousy, disguise, concealment and exile unfolds towards its inevitable conclusion the reunion of Leontes and Polixenes of Bohemia through the union of their respective offspring Donnellan (as far as one can tell from the performances and the surtitles provided) pares the text so as to concentrate upon the story itself, then inserts the occasional grace note: before her major speech at the beginning of Act IV announcing the passage of sixteen years, Time makes unscripted appearances at the opening and closing of the first half, brushing the stage clear of past events. The final scene is almost heartbreaking, as Donnellan's clarity combines with the sensitivity of an ensemble whose members have worked together for years. When the "statue" of Leontes' wife Hermione, believed dead for many years, is revealed to be the queen herself, Natalia Akimova moves and speaks with the jerky, bewildered distraction of one kept in hiding for all that time, and the joy of reunion for both parties is tempered by an agonising what-now awkwardness; Donnellan then cuts the last thirty-odd lines, freezing the action immediately after Hermione's blessing on the daughter now restored to her, at which the shade of the couple's dead son passes across the stage (accompanied once more by the figure of Time), pausing only to place a hand of forgiving benediction upon his father's head.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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