Events leap across time and place, characters are conveniently written out (and in), seemingly by supernatural happenstance, geographical impossibilities are overlooked, and, when things just get too complicated, Time herself turns up to explain.
Cheek by Jowl takes up this challenge – delivering a stylish, energetic and powerful modern production that doesn’t pull any emotional punches.
Even before the first line, the audience is breathless: Leontes (Orlando James) and Polixenes (Edward Sayer) playfight and charge round the stage space with as much energy as the boisterous boyhood friendship they're re-enacting.
It's this stunningly tight physical theatre that’s most immediately striking, and from these innocent beginnings it comes to serve as a frighteningly physical way of showing the violence and scope of Leontes’ delusions and actions.
In the first act, the onstage bench itself becomes a stage, on which Leontes, puppeteer-like, manipulates the characters around him in his imagined version of events. At other times, the whole space is a whirl of activity as the king and his servants rage around it.
Rage is what characterises Leontes, and Orlando James wrings out every last drop of emotion. The restrained warmth and steely dignity of Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione form an emotive opposition, and ensure that any audience sympathy for Leontes is hesitant at best.
Special mention must also go to Joy Richardson’s formidable Paulina, who dominates the stage with her firm moral stance, and who can make guards wither with a single look.
The play’s notorious technical difficulties are, almost without exception, handled stylishly and creatively. Haunting, supernaturally-charged scenes are enhanced by projections. The use of music is largely effective too, although occasionally it feels as though the cues are pre-empting rather than enhancing emotional responses.
One decision shines: instead of attempting to gloss over the 16-year gulf between acts three and four, the production plays it up, and with it the differences between Sicilia and Bohemia – to enormously successful effect.
Where the monochrome costumes of Sicilia reflected the sombre psychological drama of its court, Bohemia’s pastoral riotousness allows for sequined dresses, fairy lights, fancy dress props and borderline farcical contemporary allusions and fourth-wall-breaking by an outrageously saucy Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson).
When the two worlds collide in the final moments of the play, the company does its best to keep the script's rushed resolution intelligible, and the closing tableau of statuesque characters grouped around a statue is one of the most calm, most quiet moments in the production.
It’s a wonderful moment, reconciling austerity with abandon, of restoring most of the tangled threads to a renewed strength – and the cast pitches it perfectly.
For all the risks of overplaying the emotional and dramatic extremes, not a single one feels excessive or indulgent, in either acting or staging. Cheek by Jowl takes the twists and turns of The Winter’s Tale and weaves them into a single exploration of jealousy, mistrust and redemption.
It may be an idle tale, but it's a thoroughly fulfilling one.
|What||Cheek by Jowl's The Winter's Tale, Barbican Centre|
Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
05 Apr 17 – 22 Apr 17, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Booking and ticket information available here|