Theatre Reviews: The Winter’s Tale | Wonderland

Stephen Webb as Jack and Kerry Ellis as Alice can't stop Wonderland turning into a damp squib
Stephen Webb as Jack and Kerry Ellis as Alice can't stop Wonderland turning into a damp squib
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LIVING in the real world can sometimes be difficult, and unbearably harsh; which is why dreams and illusions have been part of human culture for as long as it has existed. Yet in all that long history, there has perhaps never been a bolder piece of writing about our power to imagine things differently than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which begins with a troubled king imagining an adulterous affair that never took place, and ends with the whole audience invited to imagine a parallel world in which some of the king’s worst crimes are not only forgiven, but somehow, magically, made not to have happened.

Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow ****

Edinburgh Playhouse **

Declan Donnellan’s exquisite 2016 production – co-produced by Cheek By Jowl with six major companies worldwide – has the spare and vigorous look of a production that has many miles to travel, and can spare no energy for anything except a most rigorous and passionate focus on this great and mysterious text. And at the centre of it all is Orlando James’s King as Leontes, a troubled boy-man who – under a stress perhaps linked to his own suppressed feelings for his friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia – suddenly conjures out of his overheated mind the image of an affair between Polixenes and his own pregnant wife Hermione, arranging their bodies in patterns which reflect his own wildest fantasies.

The playing-out of this sudden, horrifying, and increasingly violent domestic drama is carried through with terrific focus and concentration, in a production that does not hesitate to ditch or abridge many of the play’s wordier scenes, and that transforms the famously verbose character of Autolycus, the Bohemian trickster, into a strolling rock singer and confessional reality-show host. An end to secrets and lies is essential, this production suggests, if there is to be any healing. Yet in its beautifully-poised conclusion, it remains ambivalent about what is possibly the biggest lie of all; the insistence of Joy Richardson’s implacable lady-in-waiting Paulina that Hermione is dead, when in the end – in at least one possible world – it seems that she lives on, after all.

Meanwhile, at the Playhouse, the heroine of the latest would-be-blockbuster musical, Wonderland, is also finding it hard to live in the real world. As the show opens, single mum Alice is experiencing the 40th birthday from hell, living in a cramped tower-block flat with her daughter Ellie, about to be sacked from a job she hates, and still obsessed with the bullying husband who left her years ago.

All of this begins to change when she spots a large white rabbit leading her towards the lift doors; but what makes this 2011 musical by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy such a painful damp squib of a show is their doomed attempt to take Lewis Carroll’s memorably surreal and cynical fantasy-novel, and somehow drench its story and imagery in the sentimental believe-in-your-dreams philosophy of a generation that has always needed fewer self-help manuals, and much more politics.

The show could have improved slightly in the second half, when the humans start to teach the Wonderlanders some lessons about solidarity and collective action. In truth, though, the relentless churn of the show’s instantly forgettable schlock-pop songs – which sound as if they’ve been computer-generated to massage our emotional buttons in the most predictable way possible – would be enough to crush a much stronger and less clichéd story than this; and despite the best efforts of a plucky cast, this show stands as evidence that in the real world, bad musicals can and do happen, and sometimes just can’t be saved.

Both shows have final performances on 28 January. Wonderland is also at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 3-8 July.