Tread The Boards theatre company’s retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale begins in World War II-era Britain, featuring Leontes as a military general with a stiff upper lip and a short fuse. The court of Sicilia is given its strict hierarchy through a military rather than a royal context; a detail which translates well, adding layers of meaning to the explosive and often violent events comprising the first half of the play. John-Robert Partridge (who also directs) plays Leontes with lion-like brute force, literally knocking the pregnant Hermione to the ground. The vitriol, aggression and tragedy of the austere first half is dizzyingly countered by the tone of the second, which takes a different turn entirely.
Bohemia, 15 years after the death of Hermione and the loss of Perdita, is reimagined as a psychedelic 1960s fever dream set alternately in Ireland and the West Country, if the accents are any indication. There’s a lot of (unsurprisingly rather broad) ‘Ah to be sure, to be sure, ‘tis a beautiful diddly-i-day’ talk, as well as some sheep chasing. The Winter’s Tale is frequently classed as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ due to the huge divergence of tone between the two halves; an issue this production exacerbated by the sheer quantity of Oirish tomfoolery, flower headbands and flares present in Bohemia. However, that’s not to say that this wasn’t all great fun, including even dance numbers accompanied by the tambourine.
The intrigue, jealousy and attempted infanticide of the Sicilian court was portrayed through sensitive and passionate performances from the whole cast; Catherine Prout’s charismatic Hermione and Daniel Gates’ impressively subtle characterization of the innocent young prince Mamillus were particularly strong. The second half featured somewhat successful translations of Shakespeare’s ubiquitous tropes - including incredibly transparent disguises, improbable coincidences and clownish country folk, which were fairly engaging but lacked the passion and intensity of the first scenes.
This is a lively, fun production, which unfortunately highlights the problematic shift in tone present in the original play by the very act of setting a grim military court alongside a pastoral hippie trip. But don’t worry, Florizel says relax.