Cheek by Jowl’s internationally touring production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has touched down at the Barbican, and it is a work of anarchic brilliance.
Shakespeare is such a fixture of the theatre that even his relatively obscure plays invite reinvention. Here the plot is one of operatic contrivance, and while the play has traditionally been categorised as one of Shakespeare’s “comedies”, some scholars have labelled it a “problem play”, because of its jarring shifts in tone. While the final two acts are amusing (in a creaking Shakespearean sense), the first three are a harrowing psychological drama.
This production leans into that dichotomy, with the first half played as classical Greek tragedy. Orlando James is magnetic as Leontes, King of Sicilia, whose delight in his family is destroyed when he is gripped by a sudden paranoia that his wife has been having an affair, and that his brother Polixenes, the visiting King of Bohemia, is the true father of her unborn child.
Leontes manhandles frozen players, posing them in the tableaux vivant of his fevered imaginings, each move choreographed to perfection. Playing the Iago to his own Othello, James makes Leontes’ descent into madness utterly compelling and incredibly chilling. If he isn’t snapped up as a super villain, Hollywood casting directors aren’t doing their jobs properly.
Sicilia becomes a kind of theatrical North Korea, with courtiers on eggshells, terrified to defy his irrational commands. Oracles are denied, Leontes orders his newborn daughter be taken forthwith and exposed to the elements, and his wife and son both perish. The baby is deposited on the shores of Bohemia, where she is found by a kindly shepherd, who raises her as his own. The intermission comes as much needed relief.
Flash forward 16 years, and you’re watching an entirely different play. The trickster Autolychus appears, singing and strumming a guitar. Ryan Donaldson plays him as a charming warm up act, setting up the audience for a disorienting sideways lurch into Jerry Springer and line-dancing. It’s weird as hell, but it’s an intoxicating brew.
The shepherd’s beautiful daughter Perdita and Polixenes’ son Florizel are in love. But when Polixenes disguises himself to attend a sheep-shearing festival, discovering his son’s involvement with this apparent commoner, his rage equals that of his brother; forbidding his son from ever seeing Perdita, and threatening the shepherd with torture and death.
The young couple elope to Sicilia, where Perdita’s true parentage is revealed, and rather than being disgusted to learn that they are close relatives, everyone is jubilant, and a statue of Leontes’ dead wife comes to life.
The cast is outstanding, with highlights including the perfect stillness of Natalie Radmall-Quirke as the stone likeness of Leontes’ Queen, Hermione; the genuinely disconcerting rage of Tom Cawte’s Mamillius, Leontes’ highly strung son; and the ghoulish glee of Sam McArdle’s glaikit young shepherd, who describes a man being torn apart by a bear. All that is lacking is a man in a bear suit.
The performances are kinetic, the staging is minimal, and hugely inventive. The end result is a vibrant barrage of mismatched parts, colliding at high energy to overwhelm the audience. There is something here for everyone, and everyone should see it.