First published in The Times, Friday February 17 2017
The perennial problem in staging The Winter’s Tale is how to realise credibly its time-jumps and uncomfortable emotional leaps, not to mention the more fantastical elements in the story. “Exit, pursued by a bear” – perhaps the most famous stage direction in theatre history – is only one of several logistical challenges posed by the bard in this late play.
Max Webster, the director of this production for the Royal Lyceum, rejoices in Shakespeare’s dismantling of the conventions of dramatic storytelling, exhibiting a childlike delight in the fundamentals of putting on other people’s clothes and making up worlds. A kingdom is depicted through the use of paper crowns and a plywood castle. At one point the ensemble rolls out a carpet of grass with the words “scene change” scribbled on its underside. The vertical shutters that open and close on the scenes at the court of King Leontes (John Michie) frame proceedings in the style of a letterbox movie screen.
Webster relocates the action from Silesia and Bohemia to contemporary Edinburgh and Fife, with elements of the fourth and fifth acts translated into Scots by James Robertson, the novelist. While this innovation makes a clear, prescient point about the ways in which our use of language reveals much about our social attitudes and worldview, otherwise the contrasts drawn between the two settings are too crude to be especially illuminating.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The colourless, airless rooms designed by Fly Davis for Leontes’s kingdom, are too tastefully insipid to say anything in particular about their avowed location of Edinburgh. Fife, meanwhile, is portrayed as an endless sunny Gala Day, peopled by revellers in kilts, Barbour jackets and wellies.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
It’s left to the leads to restore emotional integrity to this notoriously fragmented tale. Maureen Beattie gives a commanding performance as Paulina, the noblewoman who never loses faith in the wronged queen, Hermione (Frances Grey). Michie so convinces us of Leontes’s agonising transition from jealous tyrant to remorseful penitent that we absolutely accept the play’s miraculous final scenes of reconciliation as his due. Meanwhile, the production’s contrasting moods are beautifully underscored by Alasdair Macrae’s original music, performed live onstage by a four-piece band.