Life & Culture

Theatre review: A Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare prompts contemporary questions for John Nathan


This is the first and, if the pandemic continues to subside, possibly last time a Royal Shakespeare Company production will receive its world première on TV.

As psychologically odd as Lear, the play’s King Leontes is a trusted ruler who becomes suddenly and inexplicably overcome by Othello-like jealousy, resulting in the banishment and all but certain death of his Queen Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and their newborn child.

In Erica Whyman’s 1950s-set production the unhinged king is played by the terrific Joseph Kloska who simultaneously coveys the state of being green with envy and seeming red with rage, a condition that overwhelms Leontes’s default setting of civility and kindness. As his queen Jacobs is also excellent, her Hermione transitioning from the poise of being raised for royalty to a tormented contempt for her husband’s irrational mind.

It is all too easy to get bogged down in the whys and wherefores of this newly barmy ruler’s condition. But the timing of the production, in an era in which much of the world is ruled by the inadequate and/or insane, encourages focus on the opposition put up by this leader-turned-tyrant’s staff. The play calls for dissent.

The high-ups in Leontes’s court do just enough to confound his most murderous edicts. Ben Caplan’s straight laced Camillo refuses to kill on his boss’s behalf while the queen’s right hand woman Paulina (a superb and unrelentingly fierce Amanda Hadingue) risks all by giving not one inch to the king, and instead rubs his nose in his own insanity.

Where, one wonders, are the Camillos and Paulinas refusing to do Putin’s bidding? Who in Trump’s ‘court’ had the gumption to stand in the way of policies that separated children from parents? And did this country escape the sight of bodies piled high in their thousands because of some Camillos and Paulinas who were working at Downing Street?

It is a shame there are no plans for the show to be staged again for live theatre. Not because it’s a good production, though it is. But arriving in the wake of Simon Godwin’s thrilling filmed version of Romeo & Juliet, Whyman’s gives little or no concession to her show being made primarily for TV audiences.

And if the hope of the BBC’s admirable Lights Up season, which supports theatre while playhouses are dark, is to attract audiences who may never been to Stratford-upon-Avon, it doesn’t show.

The cameras are generally static and apparently located half way up the stalls. The angles are mostly straight and there is none of the guerilla, handheld movement so brilliantly deployed by Godwin.

Granted, there are clever flashes where perspective changes to 1950s black and white TV and jerky Super 8 home movies.

But even the inventive interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” — here the animal is represented by the play’s women, whose simultaneous swipes avenge the mayhem caused by madmen — would work so much better in the flesh.

But the message holds fast. Long live dissent.


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