The Winter’s Tale, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

act one

I love (most of) Shakespeare but I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I struggle. Cheek by Jowl’s Winter’s Tale is a no-struggle zone. It’s not ‘dumbed down’ (whatever the fuck that means) and it’s not pretentious. It’s simply really great theatre. It’s pristine. This is probably some of the clearest Shakespearean acting I’ve ever seen. The meaning of the text is so obviously lucid. It’s effortlessly easy to understand. Everything flows so perfectly. The actors speak like real people do, which is a welcome breath of air. Dare I say it, it’s even easier to follow than Icke’s Hamlet.

Ambiguity is at the very centre of this play. Leontes’ play fighting with his son can easily turn into a proper whack around the head (and often it’s hard to tell where the boundary lies). And the audience is put in exactly the same position as Leontes: we are confronted with the very real possibility that Mamillius might be Polixenes’ son. He even looks like Polixenes. Tom Cawte as Mamillius is a genius piece of casting. He is possibly the only adult actor I have seen play a child well. He looks and acts exactly like a child, instead of tottering around in school uniform a size too small like the adult children in Matilda. Mamillius’ tantrum is one of the most distressing parts of the show. He properly throws his whole body into it, screaming his head off and banging his fists against the floor.

Orlando James is a fiery Leontes who quickly veers between violent anger and playing the happy family. The moment when he is handed the baby Perdita is very tense, not dissimilar to the moment in LOVE when Emma lets the aggressive Colin touch her baby bump. It’s unclear what he’s going to do to this baby and seeing the tiny bundle in his hands is edge-of-your-seat stuff.

The set is a stack of crates at the back, the sides of which can be pushed down as a clever visual effect and a bit of a jump scare. In the first scene, Leontes disrupts the happy family image (himself, Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s pregnant Hermione, Polixenes and Mamillius) by moving his family and close friend on the bench, demonstrating his fears of Hermione’s adultery with Polixenes by moving their bodies into a doggy style sex position. Somehow Declan Donnellan manages to avoid making this feel like one of the illustrations in those ‘12 sex positions to try over Easter’ articles in Cosmo. Instead it’s a brilliantly delicate way of demonstrating Leontes’ mental anguish. I would call it an Ostermeier level of genius, but the style of this production is so different to any of Ostermeier’s work I’m aware of. It’s not reliant at all on set, lighting and sound. Although all three of those things are there, they’re more of an afterthought. This isn’t director’s theatre, it’s actor’s theatre, hence the use of actors’ bodies to carefully depict Leontes’ greatest fear.

It wasn’t all perfect. There were a couple of long silences, and though I’m not denying that silences can be used to great effect, sometimes there was a disparate gap between Shakespeare’s text and the silence.

In general, though, it was pretty faultless. Antigonus is carefully reworked from the typical interpretation of him as a bit of an idiot. Here, there’s nothing bumbling about him. He’s statesmanlike and dignified. The clever reconsideration of his character isn’t dissimilar to Icke’s refreshing interpretation of Polonius in Hamlet.

The use of video might be simpler and cheaper than in a van Hove production, but the whole aesthetic of the production is simple, and that’s fair enough, since it’s designed for touring. It’s easy to understand why it was performed in Guildhall’s Silk Street Theatre instead of the Barbican’s main space: because the basic set would be drowned out by the massive stage. But the production’s simplicity is its strong point. This is very very different from Ostermeier and it really works.

act two

The second half is rubbish compared to the first. There is little of the clarity and tension in the early scenes. FYI: the interval comes at the point when the Shepherd discovers the baby Perdita. Which is roughly when Shakespeare’s play turns from a psychological drama/about-to-become-a-tragedy situation into a comedy (in the Jacobean sense. Obvs it’s not actually that funny). The problem isn’t with Shakespeare’s text though. The problem is in the way Cheek by Jowl’s production suddenly takes a turn for the garish and the cliched. The crystal clear acting of the first half that brings out the beauty and meaning of the language is mostly lost and doesn’t return until the final scene. Weird gag after weird gag is added in to the point where it’s bizarre. The party in Bohemia becomes a parody of the Jeremy Kyle show (occasionally hilarious, mostly cringey) and ends in a Globe-style jig. The humour the Fool brings to the table might not be quite as awful as Aguecheek’s trying-to-be-funny dance moves in Godwin’s Twelfth Night but it’s almost as unfunny. Autolycus is transformed into a charismatic singer-songwriter and TV host (the daytime TV kind that is definitely not a national treasure). In fact, the entrance of Autolycus is the moment that marks the production sliding downhill. It isn’t rescued again until we get Joy Richardson’s bold and wise Paulina back in the final scene.

The comedy isn’t as cheap as Twelfth Night but it’s definitely as uninsightful. There’s one gag about all the different papers, forms and documents you need to have to get through airport security that turns into the Fool being beaten up with a truncheon. Which is interesting and nice. And I use the words ‘interesting’ and ‘nice’ in the blandest, most non-committal sense possible. It’s a bizarre decision that I can’t get my head around. The man in the row behind me kept on loudly whispering ‘what the fuck’ which sums up my reaction pretty neatly.

I don’t have any issues with people going off script. But it’s cringey when it’s done badly (which it often is). ‘You look like shit. Have you eaten pussy today?’ from Ostermeier’s Richard III is a perfect example of what is obviously a rehearsed line made to look like an ad lib being used to great effect. This production never manages to achieve that. Is it unfair to compare this to Ostermeier? Absolutely not, because the first half is bloody pristine and the second half falls flat on its face.

Side note: women taking a selfie is not a joke in itself. There was nothing inherently funny in people taking selfies in 2012 and it’s even less funny now. I’ve seen this joke done a million times. ‘Look, lol, there are people taking a selfie on stage, I’m laughing so hard right now’. No no no no no. It’s not funny and it never has been funny.

Whenever this production tries to be clever or elaborate it loses the plot. The statue scene provided a solemn ending and a nice rescue from the banal and confusing comedy of the Bohemia scenes. And I know that Shakespeare does this weird thing where he basically switches the genre of his play half way through. I know that. But there’s no need to lose the plot quite so intensely. The storyline becomes really unclear in Bohemia and I don’t think that’s intentional. Sometimes simplest is best.


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