Theatre review: The Winter's Tale

It's a play of two halves, people often say. In truth, though, The Winter's Tale is a play of at least three halves; and if you reckon that that makes more than one play well then you're beginning to enter into the strange world of Shakespeare's great late romance, where things don't quite add up, and where magical redemption suddenly becomes possible, even in the frozen depths of grief.

The Lyceum's Winter's Tale is a bold and fascinating production

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

It was always going to be interesting to see two major productions of The Winter’s Tale in Scotland this spring; and now, at the Lyceum, the young London-based director Max Webster gives us a version that could hardly be more different, in mood and style, from Declan Donnellan’s intense and smoothly-sculpted international version, recently seen at the Citizens’.

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Here, the differences between the three parts of the story are, if anything, exaggerated, in a rowdy carnival of shifting moods and tones.

So the early scenes, in Leontes’s Sicilian court, are all tightly-controlled executive-suite design in tones of grey, with the court musicians confined to a muffled sound-studio.

But after Leontes’s catastrophic explosion of jealous fury, the cast roll out a Fife greensward, and launch themselves into a Bohemian frolic of gala-day entertainment – partly rewritten in Scots by novelist and poet James Robertson – that draws freely on the Scottish pantomime tradition, and allows Jimmy Chisholm’s Autolycus preposterous amounts of license to jest on at will, regardless of the story.

The result is a Winter’s Tale that, despite the odd unfortunate Scots stereotype, neither prettifies nor minimises the class divide crossed by Leontes’s lost daughter Perdita, when she is abandoned in Bohemia to be brought up by shepherds; here, she speaks in a strong working-class Scots that forces us to think about the role of this different, popular energy in making possible the redemptive vision of the final act.

It’s not a flawless production, in other words, but a bold and fascinating one, full of wild, exciting music orchestrated by Alasdair Macrae.

Frances Grey is beautiful, dignified and passionate as Leontes’s wronged wife Hermione, Maureen Beattie unforgettable as the waiting-woman Paulina. And at the heart of the play, there stands the little lost Prince Mamilius, brilliantly played on Tuesday by Will Robertson of the 
Lyceum Youth Theatre; symbol of all the victims of the world’s power-hungry cruelty, and of how the dead can still haunt the living, even at the moment when hope seems possible again.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 4 March.