Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh – until 4 March 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Lucid and engaging, the Lyceum’s Scottish-set production of The Winter’s Tale has much to recommend it, even if it does not quite convince. Many of the problems come, of course, from the original, which is famous not so much for its plot as for its idiosyncrasies – Bohemia’s non-existent sea-coast, or the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare, ‘exit, pursued by a bear.’
The play does present considerable problems of comprehension and execution. It lurches from the chilling effects of irrational jealousy to pastoral comedy, aided by a sudden ’16 years later’ announcement, and defies most rational explanation.
The contrast between the two locations – stiff, buttoned-up Sicilia and looser Bohemia – are made crystal clear by director Max Webster. Here, they are reimagined as the drawing-rooms of suburban Edinburgh and a local gala in what may (or may not) be Fife.
Sicilia, with Fly Davis’s rectangular white set starkly lit by Lee Curran, is all poise and formality. John Michie’s Leontes portrays both tortured jealousy and broken penitence excellently, even if his jealousy is no more explicable than it ever was. Perhaps that is entirely the point – that it remains completely irrational – but it still seems oddly out of place.
Frances Grey’s Hermione has a wounded grace, while Janet Kumah’s courtier Camilla is an effective portrayal of a politician, combining glacial effectiveness with a hidden humanity. Andy Clark’s Polixenes is a complex figure, while young Will Robertson is a notable success as Mamillius, whose presence at crucial points of the production adds further layers.
Maureen Beattie’s Paulina is very much the moral centre of the play; Beattie not only heats up the staid Sicilian atmosphere several degrees on her first entrance, but also steers a convincing course through the potential minefield of the play’s final redemption scene.
The free-wheeling Bohemian scenes of the second half could hardly be in greater contrast, being another Cheviot-style excursion into Brechtian ceilidh. Much of the dialogue has been rewritten into a modern, demotic Scots by James Robertson, which works perfectly well in itself – possibly too well, as it is the remaining elements of the original that seem ill-suited. For example, the romance between Florizel and Perdita (played winsomely enough by Scott Mackie and Fiona Wood) has less impact than it should.
Some of the contributions of John Stahl (the Old Shepherd), Brian James O’Sullivan as his son and Jimmy Chisholm (Autolycus) are nothing short of pantomime. Once again, these are effective in themselves – Chisholm’s conman, selling knock-off gear to the attenders of the gala day from a shopping trolley, while singing to the tune of 500 Miles, works fine, but the references to Donald Trump and Nicola Sturgeon seem awkward once we have to return, apparently reluctantly, to the original plot.
What is an unqualified success in this context is the ceilidh music supplied by Alasdair Macrae, Annie Grace and O’Sullivan. This is a considerable improvement on the first act, when the presence of the musicians and singer Wood in a vocal booth by the side of the stage is off-putting, some of the songs are incongruously chosen and the sound balance is noticeably off.
While the shifts in tone and setting can be off-putting, there is a commendable clarity in the storytelling that is echoed by a series of committed performances. In the end, it still adds up to less than the sum of its parts, however considerable those may be.