Cheek by Jowl are a theatre company that pride themselves on being innovative and offering something a little different. With an emphasis on producing theatre in a variety of different languages (namely English, French, and Russian), they have also to date delivered the British premieres of ten European classics.[1] The foundation of their repertoire, however, has always been Shakespeare, and so it is a welcome sight to see them back on the London stage with their current production of The Winter’s Tale. This production (in English), currently showing at London’s Silk Street Theatre, will complete its UK tour in Bristol later this month, before touring internationally around Greece, Mallorca, and Russia. Additionally it will be live streamed on the nineteenth of April on Cheek by Jowl’s website in English, French, and Spanish. This means you really have no excuse to miss it, and nor should you do so: this is a wonderful production of one of Shakespeare’s more inaccessible plays, produced by a company on the top of their game.

The Winter’s Tale is possibly Shakespeare’s last solo-written play, falling as it does among what some modern editors have termed the three “Romances” – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – which were all penned, in an uncertain order, between 1610 and 1611.[2] The play sees Leontes (the King of Sicilia) fall into a jealous rage through his paranoid belief that his friend Polixenes (the King of Bohemia) has engaged in an affair with Hermione (Leontes’ wife) and is in fact the real father of the child Hermione is carrying at the play’s opening. This belief drives Leontes to madness and causes a chain of tragic events to befall him: both Hermione and their young son, Mamillius, die, and Leontes orders that Perdita (the child he believes to be Polixenes’s bastard) be left to perish as well. These tragic beginnings, however, contrast starkly against the latter stages of The Winter’s Tale, which combine to produce an ending of comedic resolution. Perdita has survived and returns to Sicilia sixteen years later desiring to be married to Florizel (Polixenes’s son). This reunites the repentant Leontes with not only the daughter he believed dead, but also with his estranged friend whom he accused of adultery. And Leontes’ resolution is complete at the play’s conclusion when a statue of his beloved Hermione comes to life, uniting husband and wife in each other’s arms.

This (very) brief summary of The Winter’s Tale is included here simply to illustrate how complicated it is for a director to get the balance right between the play’s contrasting tragic and comedic narratives and bring them together in order to create a cohesive whole. Arguably most famous for the challenging stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”,[3] this play is in fact very complex and poses a variety of challenges with which any production has to contend. Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, respectively the director and designer of this current production from Cheek by Jowl, certainly rise to the challenge.

Instead of attempting the almost impossible task of making the first and second halves of the play fit together, Donnellan’s The Winter’s Tale in fact emphasises the disconnect between them. This production highlights the radically different environments of Sicilia and Bohemia before uniting the two at the play’s close, taking advantage of the fantastical conclusion penned by Shakespeare. The movement between different locations is made clear to the audience through the lighting (designed by Judith Greenwood). Leontes’ Sicilian court is illuminated throughout by subdued green and blue light, which reflects the humourless nature of the King’s descent into madness. In contrast, when the audience enters Bohemia after the interval, the stage is awash with warm red and yellow lighting, and there is a level of dynamism introduced to the action that would be completely alien to Leontes’ sombre court.

 

This later dynamism is enabled by the production’s ingenious set design. The Silk Street Theatre is a vast, cavernous, space and Cheek by Jowl have done nothing to limit its size. The black curtains around the three walls are all raised leaving every part of the stage visible. When the audience first take their seats, all that is present in this huge space are a long white bench in the foreground and a large white crate towards the back of the stage. Both of these objects are constructed from wooden panels, and the crate roughly resembles a wooden shipping container. This is largely how the set remains in the first half of the performance, as visual interest is created from the audience by Leontes (Orlando James) bounding around the set – both when in the throes of his madness and when playing with Mamillius (Tom Crawte) – with seemingly limitless energy. Orlando James’s performance is truly phenomenal throughout the entire show, but it has to be said that, even despite his best efforts to bring some life to the space, parts of the scenes in Sicilia still feel a little flat as the stage threatens to swallow the characters. However, the reason behind these staging decisions becomes abundantly clear just before the interval, when what previously appeared an oddly minimalist set is revealed as anything but.

During Hermione’s (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) trial for adultery, the long bench is revealed to be made up of three separate boxes, one of which is used to form a lectern at which the characters deliver their evidence. At this point a hidden camera activates, positioned so as to look up at the speakers when they come to the lectern, and projects an enlarged live video of the characters’ faces onto the side of the crate behind. This adds an extra dimension to the scene: the lighting looks much harsher on the projection, and this gives the projected images an inquisitorial feel as the evidence is presented. The enlargement of the characters’ features in these images also makes their facial movements more conspicuous. Even as her speech is one of controlled anger tinged with defiance, Radmill-Quirke expertly gives the audience a vivid sense of Hermione’s terror through her frantic and desperate eye movements. Additionally, Orlando James’s contorted facial expressions, used brilliantly throughout the play, are even more effective in conveying Leontes’ madness when enlarged behind him.

In the finale of this scene – after the action has got so frenzied that Leontes kicks the heavily pregnant Hermione in the stomach, causing her to go into early labour – Donnellan and Ormerod create a truly awe-inspiring and memorable theatrical moment. As Mamillius’s death is revealed to Leontes, a booming thunderclap plays, the wooden slats of the crate come crashing down: a blindingly bright white light shines forth to reveal the child lying on his deathbed. At this moment, the long build up has a phenomenal pay-off and the deafening noise and collapsing walls of the crate are evocative of Leontes’s mental collapse as his world falls apart.

It is precisely through waiting so long for revealing the set’s expansive capabilities that allows Cheek by Jowl’s production to draw a truly stark contrast between Sicilia and Bohemia. Once the audience is transported to Bohemia, in addition to the lighting changes discussed above, the ability to lower certain sides of the crate is used to create much more of a visual spectacle, adding an extra dimension to the stage. The revelry of Bohemia is driven by Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson), who appears as a troubadour in ripped jeans and a sleeveless top and regularly engages in metatheatrical banter with the audience: “Shout out to all the poor people in the cheap seats”. Donaldson carries the frenzied action along – just as Orlando James does in the slower paced earlier scenes – as Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) is betrothed to Florizel (Sam Woolf), enraging his father, Poloxenes (Edward Sayer). Cheek by Jowl have made frequent modern additions to Shakespeare’s script in the latter half of this production, which helps further to demark Bohemia from Sicilia. These additions are occasionally hard to follow, but in all honesty the second half of The Winter’s Tale isn’t the most coherent piece of writing that came from the Bard’s quill and the fresh take offered by this production is something to be praised.

After the frenzied action leads everyone back to Sicilia, where Leontes has been mourning for sixteen long years, Donnellan manages to thread the directorial needle and bring this difficult play to an affective and unifying conclusion. When the characters go to see the statue of Hermione the long white bench from the start has been formed again. The spectators all stand on the far side of the bench, drenched in the blue/green light of Sicilia, while Radmall-Quirke sits opposite them, perfectly still and lit by a warm orange glow reminiscent of Bohemia. When Hermione awakes, Leontes crawls up to her and stretches up to touch his wife’s hand in a fashion physically evocative of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”. Intriguingly, in this moment it is Hermione that takes the place of God, reaching down to Leontes as Adam. This notable inversion – the inanimate statue just now becoming flesh giving life to the person who has had it all along – makes perfect sense at the fantastical resolution of The Winter’s Tale. As Leontes is reunited with Hermione, stepping for the first time out of the sombre lighting of Sicilia, he is reborn: fully repentant – and, unbelievably, completely forgiven – for his early actions, his madness has subsided and he is granted a second chance. In this expert framing of the play’s resolution, one comes to realise that Cheek by Jowl’s impressive reputation is well deserved.

 

The Winter’s Tale is showing at Silk Street Theatre until the 22nd of April. Tickets and information can be found here.

 

The live stream of the production on the 19th of April can be found here.

 

[1] http://www.cheekbyjowl.com/company.php

[2] James Schapiro, Cheek by Jowl: The Winter’s Tale programme notes: 6

[3] The challenge this stage direction poses has been discussed at great length by many directors, for more information see, http://www.roh.org.uk/news/exit-pursued-by-a-bear-how-do-you-approach-shakespeares-famous-stage-direction