From tragedy to joy – surely there is no more satisfying a turn around to be found in any Shakespeare play, and in this magnificent production of “The Winter’s Tale” directed by Max Webster the extreme range of our emotions are tweaked and engaged.
Much has been made in advance publicity about the Scottishness of this version, and indeed the couthy second act which plays well and truly to the groundlings is pure Scottish panto at its rumbustious best. Before this, however, we see the heartbreak of a good marriage destroyed by insecurity and paranoic jealousy.
From the domestic pleasure of a happy family Christmas we see John Michie as Leontes wracked by doubts and suspicions about the fidelity of his beloved pregnant wife Hermione and her relationship with his best friend Polixenes. His agony is palpable – his reaction outrageous. Frances Grey brings clarity and dignity to her role as Hermione; we see the innocence that the blinded Leontes cannot. The first act ends in the most appalling tragedy – wife and son dead, new born daughter cast out. In urbane society one has a terrible position to maintain.
In complete contrast act two has a rural setting where preparations are under way for the pleasures of a rustic fair. This is Jimmy Chisholm’s moment, as he plays the archetypal Shakespearean fool, this time a lovable rogue called Autolycus – king of thieves. His patter is pure gallus Scots, Shakespeare skilfully reworked by James Robertson to convey the essence and nature of the character in recognisable, natural form. We groundlings lapped it up.
In this happy rural setting we find Leones’ abandoned daughter Perdita, now aged 16 and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. That she is alive is thanks to the kindness of an old shepherd and his son. That the regal Florizel is way above her lowly station would seem insurmountable.
This problem play will have a happy ending, however, thanks to another strongly defined character – Paulina – played with magnificent brio by Maureen Beattie. Her role is healing, oracular, practical and possibly mystical. For this is a winters’ tale, a story of icy coldness and frozen nature that yields through time to regeneration and rebirth.
Into the whole delightful mix we have the music of Alisdair Macrae and his band of musicians, whose lively atmospheric accompaniments complement in a most engaging manner the varying moods and atmosphere of the play.
I think it is true to say that the essence of this play has been well served by its skilful adaptation in language and presentation. Another Scottish play for Shakespeare – he just might have approved.
Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh until March 4th
Photo Credits Mihaela Bodlovic
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