Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Winter’s Tale’, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 7th November
I don’t think Shakespeare ever wrote a 10 to zero count down…so Northern Broadsides Theatre Company have had to add one to launch their new production of ‘The Winter’s Tale’. In their modern day production we begin at midnight on Millennium Eve and end at the turn of 2016…thus (almost) fulfilling The Bard’s instruction that his story should span 16 years.
It’s a great device, backed to the hilt by an extraordinarily fine and cleverly contemporary delivery of his Elizabethan verse. Gone is the declamatory style that dogged previous productions. These actors address us so clearly and directly you could easily forget they’re speaking Shakespeare; yet, the text is absolutely honoured.
Ruth Alexander Rubin, as the rock steady Paulina, sets the verse-speaking bar very high … and everyone else leaps over it.
The passage of time in the play is vital, to allow an abandoned baby to grow up.
The two kings of Sicilia and Bohemia were schoolmates. But when Leontes’ heavily pregnant but innocently flirtatious wife seems slightly too happy in Polixenes’ company, her husband becomes insanely jealous. There is a sense that he has been denied by the ‘bump’ and his frustrations cloud his mind. Conrad Nelson’s performance is so outstanding you can actually see his point, as he makes the utterly irrational appear obviously rational. We are watching here the unfolding of a despot.
The first half of the play is a classic tragedy…as the baby is banished into the waves.
But after the interval, it’s as if the show has been crazily invaded by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – who herald the third king; the king of comedy, Michael Hugo.
Having previously been a passenger in the play, he comes into his own as Shakespeare changes gear and Northern Broadsides let rip. Someone makes the mistake of giving the clown a microphone and he’s off on a swerving flight of fancy – “Testing testing…hey nonny nonny!” – before taking the micky out of Bob Dylan and leading the cast in a Rap madrigal. It’s all hugely loveable stuff and strangely in keeping.
It’s such a dichotomous play. The crevasse between comedy and catastrophe yawns wide. Yet Conrad Nelson’s production sews it all together with unerring precision …as if he’s an alchemist, healing the rift with a recipe of imagination, daring and due deference.
The themes of classless true love, ultimate redemption and reunification are pristinely unsullied by all the fun and frolics All in all it’s a memorable night of rewarding theatre…reverential and outrageous in equal measure.
Incidentally, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ includes Shakepeare’s most unlikely stage direction; “exit pursued by a bear”. The bear’s there all right….but you’d best not blink!
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Photo : Nobby Clarke