26 JANUARY 2005  
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I knew I was on a journey to see The Winter's Tale in the magical setting of the Watermill, West Berkshire Playhouse, when on the M4 out of London I spotted the sign -- "For the ORACLE Exit at Junction 11". Perhaps the Sicilian Lords had earlier that day scampered off to Junction 11 to prove Hermiones' innocence. Whatever the meaning of this prognostication, no Delphic Oracle could have forewarned me of the joy that was awaiting me in Ed Hall's triumphant production of The Winter's Tale.

It is always a pleasure to see this closely-knit company of actors perform their interpretations of Shakespeare in the bucolic surroundings of the Watermill. The intimacy of the space, the stream rushing through the mill building, the friendly atmosphere without pretension, just a joyous promotion of good theatre. The Winter's Tale lived up to all expectations. As with Hall's earlier projects, including the wonderful A Midsummer Night's Dream , all the parts are played by men. Not men in drag with ornate wigs, but men whose mannerisms and dress make nodding acknowledgement of their gender change. Even so, after only moments, these women's parts are totally believable; a convention both brave and successful.

Set on a tiny stage in a decrepit grey-marble classical past, the Sicilian palace of King Leontes sparkles with metallized panels, behind which candles glitter. Under Michael Pavelka's design, hints of crumbling classical architecture perfectly evoke this kingdom ruled by a monarch whose 'humour' is violent jealousy towards his ever-faithful wife. This jealousy in turn leads to hatred and tyranny, towards his childhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia , and towards his own family. The result, a bitterly haunted man who appears to have destroyed the love and friendship of kith, kin, and nation.

The play opens with the falling of the sands of time. Leontes' son Mamillius plays in a sandpit with figurines that fancifully represent the actors in his evolving tale -- his winter's tale -- cold and dark and frightful. By scrunching up his eyes and imagining really, really hard he can create the surreality of his own short existence.

There is a wonderful sense of foreboding in this intelligent and markedly postmodern interpretation of a classic play. After a first half of pure tragedy, followed by a second half of pure pastoral romantic comedy, the final dénouement, which traditionally brings hope and rejuvenation, in Hall's production brings nothing but doubt and tears. Hermione does not embrace her husband in joyous forgiveness, rather in tired resignation and relief that her name is at last unsullied. Paulina accepts the imposition of a worthy new husband with disbelief and then disdain. Mamillius as conjuror of the whole story also adds a new dimension to this ending. Holding a candle towards the outstretched arms of the once-mad Leontes, Mamillius blows out the flame, the smoke billowing in his father's tear-stained eyes. Mamillius has chosen an ending to his imagined winter's tale, not of reconciliation but of disdainful rejection.

Other wonderful moments abound in this intelligent and at all times entertaining production. The image of the examination of Hermione, a 1950s American show-trial complete with fedora-hatted reporters and the frantic typing of a court stenographer. The huge bear-skin rug that we know is later going to be donned for the infamous "pursued by bear" stage direction, and which is gloriously disregarded just at the vital moment. The appearance of Hermione as her own statue, worthy of the greatest magician, was truly awe-inspiring.

As with all Hall's productions, the ensemble work is the finest in contemporary British theatre. All the actors perform to the highest professional standard -- and then some. It is inevitable that some of Shakespeare's characters should shine simply because they are written as showcases, either for a leading actor or a resident Globe clown. Tony Bell's Autolycus is an Elvis/Bob Marley/Jethro Tull look-alike who raps and rocks his thieving way through the rustics of Bohemia. Chris Myles and James Tucker as the Old and Young Shepherd are dutifully gullible, even down to an onstage strip which was at once funny, sad and totally painful in its ludicrousness.

Richard Clothier played the tyrannical and jealous King Leontes with great panache, whilst Simon Scardifield's Hermione was the personification of virtue. That Scardifield could so convincingly portray a heavily pregnant woman is testimony to the involvement of the audience and the actor. Bob Barrett was the perfect faithful retainer, Camillo, treading the fine line between obsequiousness and genuine moral fortitude. His strength saves the life of Polixenes, a fine king in Vince Leigh, and the two escape to Bohemia with its unusual (if in reality non-existent) coastline.

Adam Levy as Paulina gave a performance with such integrity and honest feminine pride that from the moment he spoke he was the lady of the court and confidant of Hermione. This was far beyond female impersonation. Levy was Paulina, his stance, his gestures completely convincing. The most exciting gender variations came from Tam Williams, who successful played Leontes' son Mamillius and, some sixteen years later, his own abandoned sister, Perdita. Courted by Dugald Bruce Lockhart's Florizel, wayward son of Polixenes, Perdita's rural upbringing cannot mask her aristocratic heritage. Williams played the meeting between Perdita and the mother she never knew existed as a moment of intense personal emotion and real joy.

Throughout music and laughter abound, the actors playing piano and guitar or creating ethereal harmonies circling the rims of brandy glasses. Let there be no doubt, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale has traditionally been considered a difficult play to stage. It is neither tragedy, comedy, or even tragicomedy, but a complicated conflation which defies generic classification. In this one play, the sum of early modern drama is displayed. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the difficulty of this binary construction resulted in the slicing of the play in half. Audiences were only invited to watch the rustic humour of part two; the tragedy was expunged in favour of a lighter evening's entertainment. The darker edges of this wonderful play again found favour in the twentieth century, and now Hall has created a production of such clarity and discretion that we are able to see The Winter's Tale as if with renewed vision.

As with Hall's other productions, The Winter's Tale is bound to get its West End backer. Don't wait until it transfers. Make that journey along the M4 to Berkshire and see the play in the environment for which it has been so ably produced, The Watermill. I know you will not be disappointed -- the Oracle has declared it so.

Kevin Quarmby © 2005