The Winter's Tale

Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale has all the characteristics of a Tragedy, as we speedily witness the horrendous consequences of King Leontes' groundless jealousy for pregnant wife Hermione and life-long friend Polixenes. A textbook case of “confirmation bias”, every counter-argument he hears is assumed false and further justification for his actions. By the close of Act Three (where the Lyceum slips in an interval), Leontes has lost his wife and son Mamillius, abandoned newly born daughter Perdita, and been seen as an unapologetic tyrant at home and untrustworthy friend internationally. If this was Tragedy, Leontes would be dead meat.

a battle of the sexes underscored by the bold, colourful switch from Leontes’ court politics to Perdita’s music and dance festival.

But it’s not, so he isn’t. By this latter stage of his career, Shakespeare appears to have tired of simple genre expectations, keeping his source story’s 16 year gap between events in the third and fourth acts. As a result, The Winter’s Tale undergoes such a speedy tone change—from psychological tragedy into broad pastoral comedy—that you can hear the narrative’s tyres screeching. Or is that the roar from Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction?

Thankfully, this new Royal Lyceum production, directed by Max Webster, knows when to be bold. Sharp-suited John Michie may be best remembered in Scotland for starring in a dozen series of Taggart, but proves himself here an utterly believable Leontes; his jealousy is deep-rooted, subtly-played and never less than shocking in its intensity. Secondly, Webster drops in the bear motif regularly (as, for example, a child’s “onesie”, in this modern-dressed version) without it being forced; this particular “Exit, pursued by a bear” works both in the moment and within the wider context of the whole play.

Gender-flipping loyal nobleman Camillo into Camilla ensures that all the main characters initially aligned against Leontes’ male fury are female, a battle of the sexes underscored by the bold, colourful switch from Leontes’ court politics to Perdita’s music and dance festival. The odds may ultimately be stacked in the women’s favour, but it’s clear the extent to which Frances Grey’s noble Hermione and Maureen Beattie’s forthright Paulina are hurt being constrained by societal rules.

Alasdair Macrae and other cast members provide a superb live electro-Celtic score which underscores this as a Scottish Winter’s Tale; thematically, its atmosphere is matched only by the strong east coast working class brogue gifted to the lowly Shepherds of Bohemia courtesy of James Robertson’s delightfully faithful Scots translation. Importantly, we’re already familiar with “soft” Scottish accents among the “nobility”, but Robertson’s dialogue provides more than just an opportunity for pantomime-styled comedy from Jimmy Chisholm, John Stahl and Brian James O’Sullivan. It adds a cultural layer to a production that would be genuinely the poorer for its loss.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

“Though I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes so by chance.”

The Lyceum returns to the Shakespearian canon with acclaimed director Max Webster (King Lear with Michael Pennington; Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe) presenting a uniquely Scottish take on this bitter-sweet masterpiece.

When King Leontes suspects his wife Hermione of adultery his jealousy tears the kingdom apart. The queen is banished and believed dead, while their daughter Perdita is abandoned among simple shepherd folk. Passionate tragedy interweaves with pastoral comedy, leading to one of Shakespeare’s most magical and moving denouements.

The cast includes Lyceum favourites Maureen Beattie (The Cherry Orchard) and Jimmy Chisolm (Thon Man Molière); and John Michie (Taggart, seen recently in Grain in the Blood at the Traverse Theatre).

This late, great play is performed by a talented company of actor musicians in a vibrant and lyrical production.