Places and Spaces and the play of two halves. The Winter’s Tale (Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Grand Opera House, York)


Much has been made of the thrust stage in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST)  and how it would change the way the RSC approached its productions. I was particularly fascinated by the way that a production could be developed for both a thrust stage and a proscenium arch tour. That’s why I wanted to see their latest production of The Winter’s Tale in both York (at the Grand Opera House) and at the RST in Stratford Upon Avon. I was particularly interested in how this production transferred from one playing space to another, and whether it would look considerably different in each space.

The obvious change was that at the Grand Opera House, the actors played out front and at points Jo Stone-Fewings (as Leontes) sat on the edge of the stage to deliver some of his soliloquies.   The set design was heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite painting in the first part of the play and seaside postcards in the second half of the play. The programme discussed this idea in some detail, and what struck me was that this idea worked much better watching it in front of a proscenium arch than it did from the side of the stalls in Stratford.  The first half of the production played on a fantasy, and a relaxed recreational way of life that  resembled an early Pre-Raphaelite painting in its detail.  As the production moves on and Leontes becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous, the production darkens and becomes more threatening.  For example, the characters moved from bright clothes into dark suits. In the second half, when the  play moves on sixteen years the action moves to a Northern seaside resort.  I was given the impression that the two places being different aspects of the same country and this is reinforced by Leontes presence on stage, as he looks down from a tower during the second part of the play.

One of the key features of Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale was the use of a multimedia background. I felt that the multimedia in her production of Julius Caesar was problematic and though in this production the multimedia worked much better,  it did not add much to the production overall and at times became very distracting. On the back of the stage was projected a seascape that presented the changing seasons, locations and shifts of mood. On the Royal Shakespeare Theatre thrust stage the multimedia was not as effective at  all from the sides of the thrust stage.   In some seats it was difficult to see the bear appear.   However, the multimedia worked much better on the proscenium arch stage with the audience in front of it.

In the last RSC production of The Winter’s Tale (dir David Farr), there was a moment, when the bookcases collapsed and as everything unravelled. In this production, a tower grinds upwards from the stage . Was this an image from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games?  Was  I supposed to think that it represented the Industrial Age in the middle of the Pastoral world? I wasn’t clear about this and I felt that the imagery was a little muddled.

Hermiones of the recent past have appeared in the trial scene in dresses stained with the birth fluid.  In contrast, Tara Fitzgerald’s Hermione was dressed in black for her trial and there were clearly echoes of Anne Boleyn’s trail here.   The swordsman stands in the background. Though this was a very dramatic image, it seemed to be out of place and anachronistic in a production that couldn’t make up its mind about which idea/ideas it really wanted to focus on.

I enjoyed the Bohemia scenes more than I normally do. I think was because I could see how they related to the first half of he play in this production. Peace Quigley played a very dry Autolycus, and Nick Holder was a great stand up Clown’s son.

This was a violent production. Leontes punches Hermione in her swollen pregnant stomach and the audience gasped. When Leontes sat on his ivory tower looking down, there was a real sense of him being in purgatory and undergoing a punishment for his wife’s ‘death’.  The audience was always aware of his presence throughout the second half, and when Polixenes is violent to Florizel, history is repeating itself. The fight between Mopsa and Dorcus became an ironic commentary on the way that the court had behaved in the first part of the play.

Though I enjoyed this production and was entertained by the Bohemia scenes, I felt that overall it played with ideas on the surface and didn’t really get to grips with the emotion in the play. I still think of the image of Greg Hick’s crumpled Leontes being revealed slumped at the back of the stage in David Farr’s production was such a powerful image, and the tower just didn’t have the same effect. Again, I think the set design distracted from the play itself and added little particularly in Stratford on the thrust stage.  I was left wondering whether the set had been designed for the tour, and it had been hoped it would work in the RST as well.

Lucy Bailey RST The Winter's Tale York Grand Opera House

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