Saturday, 30 May 2009

A Winter's Tale @ The Old Vic

Last night saw the first preview of The Winter's Tale under the direction of Sam Mendes, part of a double-header (the other show's The Cherry Orchard) playing here after a spell the other side of the pond. It's a mixed bag of a cast in terms of celebrity: Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack are UK stage royalty but the shows will sell out on the basis of shooting star Rebecca Hall and Hollywood dauphin Ethan Hawke; the rest of the cast are a capable, discreet melange of all of the above.

It's a good show of a good play. Sicilia and Bohemia become transatlantic poles in an effectively abstracted-Edwardian design. Ethan Hawke's manic balladeer plays blues, rock riffs and joins a folk trio in the second half after jealously has got the better of King Leontes in the first, rather as pride does in Lear. Simon Russell Beale's Leontes is the talisman of the production, a mercurial and remarkably proletarian doge who moves between vaudeville and pathos balletically. Rebecca Hall plays his wife, the wronged Queen, and her premature departure allows Hall the opportunity to give an intense account of her travail.

Sinéad Cusack as Paulina balances the void of a stalwart female voice with a fine performance opposite Russell Beale. It's interesting to note the value of a fine actor coming on for a limited but essential part and period, less to engage the audience but to ground them in the play's intents: Paul Jesson's Camillo (who is, symbolically, joined with Paulina at the close) is another case in point.

Mendes's production is a simple affair which benefits from fine lighting (Paul Pyant). The themes of desertion, privation and the elapsing of time are of a piece with the pale wood raked stage and minimal clutter - this is the Winter in the tale, a suspension of warmth and largesse, waiting for resolution that only time seems to be able to provide. There are one or two minor coups, one demanded by the famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' (a chilling moment, which many reasonably took as a knowing joke). Mark Bennett's music from the wings is a little rudimentary, functional & anonymous - the on-stage band are a treat though.

Shakespeare's play seems to be the only elephant in the auditorium, as it were. I felt the seams fairly presently, wondering whether I was watching a re-hash of Lear (as mentioned) or even Oedipe. Having two continents divided not only by 16 years but also an interval and the first entrance of, in the eyes of many, the biggest star of the evening makes for quite a fermata in the drama. The drama itself gets curtailed necessarily towards the end as the big revelation one expects gets subordinated for one one does not - this makes for an interesting (if protracted) denoument but I'm not sure that it's even drama.

Nonetheless it's a fair production in the final analysis, giving the play its due which is considerable. Good luck finding a ticket...

Postscript: On this week's Radio 5 Live film review, Mark Kermode, in his ongoing discussion of 3D films, quoted Sam Mendes who, in answer to the question 'would you ever do a film in 3D' had replied
I already have - it's called theatre.

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