By Nayomi Karthigesu
Directed by Natalie Rose Quatermass, the York Shakespeare Project brings to stage Shakespeare’s 32nd play, A Winter’s Tale. In the director’s own words, a play of “two such contrasting halves”, it is exactly as is described, with a psychologically troubled and dark first act conflicting with the joyous and gay last acts that Quatermass handles adeptly.
The John Cooper Theatre is a small space and as such, no matter the play, there will always be great intimacy with the theatregoers. Last night, the audience were not witnessing a play on stage; no, they were immersed in a saga of family dramas and torn psyches. The first few scenes are enacted amongst a crowd of courtiers and servants, so that the conversations between Camilla and Archidamus, and Polixenes and Hermoine resemble snippets of gossip witnessed at the corner of dinner parties rather than being the exchanges of royalty and noblemen. Here, there is a notion of egalitarianism as king and queen, nobleman and servant all seem on level playing field as they mix with one other – a direct contrast to YSP’s previous production of Henry VIII where there is a distinct class divide.
The audience is then transformed from spectating peers to the consciousness of Leontes as he addresses us with his suspicions. The bleakness of the set, which truly takes the title of “A Winter’s Tale” to heart, begins to bleed into the actions on stage and, coupled with Flora Greysteel’s music, truly brings to life the inner workings of Leontes’ mind.
Enough cannot be said about Flora Greysteel’s music. The York duo, consisting of Simon Bolly and Emily Rowan, are the first to flit onto stage as they take their place by their instruments; they are dressed in the clothing of the other Bohemians as a hint of what would come in the second half of the play. The play starts surrounded in mirth and merriment, not to mention Bolly’s melodica playing a tune that would not be out of place in any other magical setting. This then changes as Leontes’ (Paul French) mind begins to unravel into something more sinister, complimented by French’s jittery movements across stage.
From here on out a few cracks begin to emerge, and not just in the relationships presented on stage. A few forgotten lines and stiff uncertain arm placements remind us that the production is not without its faults, as the play hurriedly finishes with the abandoning of Perdita, the unveiling of Hermione and the most infamous of stage exits: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
It is from the interval onwards where the play truly livens up with the two stand out performances of Autolycus and Clown by Claire Morley and Elizabeth Lockwood respectively. Not only did they bring good humour and vitality to their characters, but even when mingling with the audience during the interval, they maintained their characters with such vivacity that it was almost hard to believe that we were watching the same play.
In the end the play was a jolly good show of talent, possibly wasted on some dull characterisation by Shakespeare as even with the impressive delivery of the cast, it is a difficult task to enliven some of the characters in A Winter’s Tale. (This author may be biased). However, I would truly recommend a visit to this production if not for the performances by Morley and Lockwood then possibly for the free food during the interval.
A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare is performing at the John Cooper Studio Theatre (formerly Upstage Theatre) at 41 Monkgate, York till October 28th. Tickets available on the door and online (https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/winters_tale.php).