The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (1)


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Helen Leblique

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd June 2009

Another touch of the ‘Smallwoods’ again today. Despite the lack of rehearsal time plus all the other distractions RSC actors are hit with during a summer at Stratford, this was another very good performance, up to a regular professional standard. There may have been a fluffed line or two, but not so’s you’d notice. Nobody was doubling up roles that were on stage at the same time, so the whole thing ran smoothly as for a regular performance. There may have been some cutting – I noticed the song by the shepherd’s love triangle was missing – but we won’t really know until the main event.

The set was very bookish. Two very large bookcases flanked the central doorway at an angle, just back of the thrust. For the opening scene a long dining table ran diagonally across the stage, towards our corner. It was removed after the initial scenes, with a couple of chairs being left behind. One of these disappeared later, so that Leontes had just one chair to sit in during Hermione’s trial. Although our view was blocked more than I would have liked, on the whole they kept the space pretty open throughout.

The gods’ anger with Leontes ran into the storm scene very well. The bookcases toppled forward and hung there, looming over the stage, with their books thrown onto the floor or hanging off the shelves. A lot of individual pieces of paper fell out as well; we kept the one that floated over to land by our feet – extract from Hansard. The central ceiling light, a large dome intended to be glass, fell down as well but bounced and ended up as a dome on the ground. Antigonus left Perdita there, and when the bear rose up at the back entrance allowed himself to be taken instead of the baby (sniffles). The bear looked as if it had been made of books, with bits of brown paper hanging off its coat. The ending of the first half was quite upbeat this time, with the end of the storm and two chaps relatively happy with their lot, especially as they’d just come into a lot of gold.

I thought the paper would be cleared away during the interval, but not a bit. In fact, more was added. By the time I came back in, there was paper all along the front of the stage and a lady stage hand was just sticking some extra sheets down along the walkway to our right. More books had been piled up underneath the bookcases – it gave the musicians somewhere to sit – and the general impression was of a paper-throwing free-for-all. The centre of the stage was relatively clear to give the actors somewhere safe to walk, but even so there were a few swathes of paper that tried to follow some actors around until a fellow cast member put a stop to it.

The opening to the second half had Time being lowered down in the glass dome, this time hung like a large swing seat (the dome, not Time). In the next scene, Polixenes laid the groundwork for Camillo’s little scheme later on by denying him the chance to go back to Sicilia for his final days. Then Autolycus popped out of the centre of the stage and started chatting with the musicians, getting their help when spinning his sob story to Perdita’s ‘brother’. Some trees descended, with one going right into the opening in the middle of the stage, and although it shook a bit when Perdita climbed out of it, just managing to keep her skirt on, it did well enough to suggest the countryside. The country fair went well enough – we got the satyrs and their enormous appendages – and then Florizel goes and pops the question right in front of his Dad, who’s not too pleased. Actually, I noticed a family resemblance straightaway this time. Pops likes dressing up in silly outfits, especially the worst fake beard I’ve seen in a long time, while his son takes delight in donning the naffest yokel’s smock he could find to cover up his posh clothes. Poor dress sense runs in the family, then. Anyway, the young couple head off to Sicilia, hotly pursued by Polixenes and Camillo and with all the other relevant characters in tow as well.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes is still in the grip of grief. Paulina is constantly rubbing more salt into the wound and fending off the suggestions of the other courtiers that Leontes should get married again. He seems to have fully recovered from his bout of insane jealousy, but Paulina is no doubt waiting for the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophecy before reuniting him with his love. I noticed the way that the revelations are reported to us and how moving they are, when perhaps they might not have been so emotive had they been acted out. Then we get the final revelation, of Hermione’s survival, and this worked very well for me. Hermione was amazingly still – she did have a reasonable posture this time – and I felt she wasn’t entirely sure how Leontes would react to finding his wife alive after all this time. More sniffles.

With everyone who is everyone happily reunited, they all head off through the rear doors to have a jolly good knees up, all except Autolycus, who’s shut out. The play ends with him sitting on the central plinth that held Hermione’s ‘statue’ and looking glum.

Although the bookish theme wasn’t always convincing, it didn’t get in the way, so I found myself enjoying this performance more than I expected. The standard of performance was high, and there were some lovely touches. I liked Noma Dumezweni and Kelly Hunter (normally Paulina and Hermione) nearly coming to blows over the young shepherd, and while Autolycus (Paul Hamilton) may have needed a little help on occasion, such as putting out his wares, he did have some nice lines, even inviting the audience to join in his song as well as chatting up the lady playing the violin. James Gale got across Leontes’ jealousy very well – Steve reckoned it had been building up for some time – and I saw a lot more in Hannah Young’s performance as Hermione than I’ve seen before, how she suffers not only for herself and her children but also for her husband, recognising that he’s trapped in his own delusion. When Leontes says to one of his lords that he won’t be happy until she’s dead, I saw the connection with Paulina’s deception, though whether that was cause and effect I’ve no idea.

Simone Saunders was a formidable Paulina, and whetted my appetite for Noma’s version, while the rest of the cast played their numerous parts very well. It was a true ensemble, as all the cast contributed to the understudy run including the ‘stars’, which gives a completely different feel to the performance.

At the end, David Farr came on stage to say a few words and to explain that this had been the public understudies run, and we applauded even more. I’ll try not to have too high an expectation of the regular performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at