Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5
Shakespeare’s rarely performed play The Winter’s Tale is tragic and terrible in the first half, fantastical in the second, moving in fairytale fashion from jealousy and cruelty to love and forgiveness. Because of the stylistic disparity, it’s often considered one of his “problem” plays.
Out of the blue, for the flimsiest of reasons, a suddenly jealous King Leontes of Sicily (Myles Pollard) wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Helen Thomson) of adultery with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Dorian Nkono).
Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that their newborn daughter Perdita be abandoned. His young son Prince Mamillius (Rory Potter) and Hermione both die of heartbreak.
In the second half, set sixteen years later, order is magically restored and the characters are reconciled.
In this new production for Bell Shakespeare Company, director John Bell focuses his interpretation around Mamillius, presenting the play from the boy’s perspective. So, the first half is what really happens and the second half is what the boy – now a spiritual observer – wishes had happened and conjures with magic wand in hand.
It’s an interesting, intelligent idea, which Bell is able to explore without altering the text. He merely reallocates a few lines to Mamillius (the reading of the Delphic oracle and the description of Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, told using hand puppets).
However, the production doesn’t totally work, somewhat diminishing the horror of Leontes’ actions at the beginning and detracting a little from the moving reconciliation at the end.
The entire play is set in a child’s bedroom – though Stephen Curtis’s set looks more like a pretty nursery than a boy’s room with diaphanous white curtains, a wicker basinet for the impending baby, a white bunk bed on stilts, and a large mobile with stars and other pretty knick-knacks as well as a few macabre ones (a naked baby doll, a skeletal forearm) foreshadowing things to come. There are also a few boys’ toys (castle, lego, dinosaur, teddy bear) and a dress-up box.
Many scenes in the first act sit oddly in such a setting. Some of the audience laughed on opening night when Leontes sat on a toddler’s chair holding a toy sword as he pronounced his awful judgment on Hermione. It did make him seem somewhat crazed – which works on one level – but we should have been shuddering not laughing. Pollard was not able to cut through and bring quite enough menace to the situation.
Most of the second half is set in Bohemia, which is here given a kind of 60s hippy-trippy vibe, with the plot, colourful costumes and special effects emerging as if from Mamillius’s imagination and dress-up box.
There are some lovely moments. The famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is cleverly done – one of several neat effects using shadows – and Matthew Marshall’s many-hued lighting also adds lots of colour, emphasising mood swings.
There are a few changes to the mobile and some vibrantly bright costumes – but the idea of moving from cold, hard reality to Mamillius’s dream-world might have been more effective if the transformation in the set had been a little more dramatic perhaps.
Though the second half exudes a sense of joyousness, it labours under too much comedy that no longer strikes a chord today and does start to drag. (The production runs for three hours).
The acting is a little mixed. Pollard’s light voice and Aussie inflections don’t bring sufficient weight to the difficult role of Leontes and he isn’t totally convincing in either his fury or his anguish.
Thomson is moving as Hermione and Michelle Doake is in commanding form as Hermione’s fiercely loyal friend Paulina, delivering the language with great clarity. Both are also very funny as shepherdesses.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the production 13-year old Potter (who shares the role with Otis Pavlovich) gives yet another wonderfully subtle, touching performance as Mamillius, remarkable for one so young.
The Winter’s Tale runs until March 29. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 9