REVIEW: The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare returns to the ADC in fine style.

Cambridge the winter's tale Theatre

It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare died, and yet the most-quoted line of the Winter’s Tale is still timeless: ‘Exit, pursued by bear.’

The play constructed around this memorable image is a strange and fascinating one; part-pastoral comedy, part-romance, part-psychological drama, The Winter’s Tale veers between pantomime-esque musical flirtation and a stark, horrifying portrayal of insane jealousy. It’s difficult to classify: the cast is large even with doubled roles, and the set cleaves halfway through from the court of Sicilia to a (beautifully constructed) outdoor pastoral space, from dinner tables to haybales. It’s ambitious, and the cast pull it off.

King of Sicilia, Leontes is visited by the neighbouring King of Bohemia, his old friend Polixenes. Leontes misinterprets the friendly relationship between Polixenes and Leontes’ wife, Queen Hermione, and goes mad with jealousy, believing that Hermione is an adulteress and pregnant with Polixenes’ child. The effects of Leontes’ madness take us from Hermione’s public trial to the fields of Bohemia, where a prince has fallen for a lowly shepherd girl and a wicked trickster sings and steals his way back to the Sicilian court.

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Leontes (Tom Beaven) rages at Camilio (Sarah Creedy Smith) Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth

Some actors are more comfortable than others with the demands of Shakespeare’s language, and performances range from competent (none are less than competent) to stellar. Calm, poised Hermione (Ellen Gage) performs with grace and a steely will, and Tom Beaven’s Leontes is a wrenching portrayal of a psychologically subtle character, unsettling as he descends into madness and rage. Paulina (Emma Blacklay-Piech) is also a standout, unusually comfortable in the language and compelling in her bleak, powerful call for atonement.

Hermione (Ellen Gage) stands in the dock

Hermione (Ellen Gage) stands in the dock (Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

If anyone could be said to steal such a group-driven show, the closest person to come to it was Jack Gardner as Autolycus; he ricochets onto stage with a roguish charm, an infectious charisma, and comedic chops that reminded me of some hybrid between Jack Whitehall and a pantomime dame. The singing in the show is pulled off well, particularly the interval duet between bright-eyed lovers Perdita (Clara van Wel) and Florizel (Joe Pitts), but Gardner’s musical skill is genuinely stunning. The small onstage orchestra is also to be congratulated.

There’s not much I would change about the show – ‘accomplished’ and ‘professional’ describe it better than ‘magnificent’, but skilfully pulling off a play like this is a hell of a task. The change of set, the convoluted subplots, the change in tone; it’s a big ask for a student play, even a big-budget ADC mainshow. The runtime is extremely long (three hours). It’s called the Winter’s Tale, and it felt like it was going to be winter by the time it finished; the ensuing fatigue somewhat muffled my ability to enjoy the denouement. However, the last act seemed too compressed. Autolycus’ storyline seems to taper off into nowhere (though I haven’t read the play, so it’s possible that’s scriptural), and characters in the last scene seem to know things without explanation as to how.

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Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth

Generally, however, it’s a solid, satisfying adaptation with some flashes of brilliance, and worth a watch for Shakespeare novices and aficionados alike.

4/5 stars