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The Winter’s Tale

by on 20 March 2019

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The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare, in a new version by Helikon Theatre Company

Helikon Theatre Company, at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 23rd March

A review by Matthew Grierson

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: there’s this king, Leontes, who tells himself his pregnant wife Hermione is cheating on him with his best mate Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, so he orders his friend to be killed and banishes his new-born daughter. The twist is there’s a happy ending.

Don’t believe me? I’m not sure I would – and Helikon Theatre clearly don’t as they’ve attempted a bold(ish) reimagining of Shakespeare’s romance to amplify its contemporary resonance. And truth be told, they largely succeed.



The conceit of the production is that the stories we tell ourselves today are often relayed through the media, so scenes not only play on stage in front of us but are also live-streamed on a selection of screens behind and around the cast, or are supplemented by recorded footage. So when the play jumps right in with Polixenes’ speech about the great time he’s been having in Sicily, Lanre Danmola as the Bohemian monarch stands with his back to the audience facing a camera that projects his face on an upstage screen we can all watch. All right, there is a bit of a lag with the lip-synching and Danmola is prone to gabbling his lines, but we get the message: Sicily is both a surveillance state and a celebrity culture. The use of captions such as ‘Day One’ then not only helps place us in time – we’re up to day 5,000-and-something by the end – but also suggests the Sicilian cabinet is akin to the Big Brother house.


This televisual vision is successfully sustained throughout the piece as a feat of design, direction and, mostly, technical accomplishment. As though nothing is real if it is not also broadcast, the tyrannous Leontes (an intense and compelling Michael Howlett) insists on sitting his wife before the camera to ‘confess’ her adultery, and even forces a microphone back into her face as she defends herself at trial. Not to be outdone, Rhonwen Cash’s dignified Hermione co-opts the lens to declare her innocence before the presumed populace. In this respect, Helikon’s modernisation is spectacular in both senses.


Not that the play depends entirely on technology for this spectacle, with the use of stagecraft and physical theatre proving just as effective. A cloth and a wig represent the baby princess as she is swaddled in the arms of the hapless Antigonus (Ben Walsh), for instance. He is then set upon by Leontes and his courtiers to signify both the exile the king has imposed and the shipwreck in which he loses his life. In the process, the wig finds its way on to the head of Emma Blacklay-Piech as the grown-up Perdita in the next scene. Hey presto, 16 years have elapsed.

Where the play feels less mature is in its revision of the dialogue. The transitions between Shakespeare’s verse and the modern interpolations are not at first noticeable, the dialogue being largely well spoken and easing between the two registers, but as soon as I heard the ‘fuck offs’, ‘special relationships’ and ‘depression’ with which the text has been peppered my sense was that we could have done without them; they are simply flourishes, pointing us towards an interpretation that is clear enough from the direction.

For instance, the intercession of Paulina (Eleanor de Rohan) on behalf of Hermione, ‘We need to reach a compromise and end this nightmare’, may net a laugh from the audience but it seems a cheap one – why insist on the play’s timelessness by trying to land it in the very particular politics of spring 2019? Thankfully, such nod-and-wink references are the exception. De Rohan is far better served by a more significant departure from the folio when Paulina seizes the mic and declares the king’s failings to the nation, taunting the now-heartbroken Leontes in a bravura blast of bitter sarcasm that ends with both characters on the verge of tears.

The counterpoint to this sequence comes in the first scene with the grown Perdita. The baby thrown out with the bathwater of the Bard’s verse is now an actor, and such is the freshness of her dressing room speech to paramour Prince Florizel that I thought the whole scheme of Shakespeare’s original had also been cast off to give a daring and incisive metatheatrical comment on female roles in the theatre. Blacklay-Piech has given equally impressive turns as her own brother Prince Mamillius and one of Leontes’ apparatchiks earlier in the play, and as Perdita she and Alex Chard as Florizel make the most of the naturalism this reworked scene offers, bringing a legitimate joy to this most difficult of pieces.

The difficulty that does remain in staging the play so definitively in the present moment is that we are then tempted to wonder why its contemporaneity is not more comprehensive, when Shakespeare’s Sicily and Bohemia is able to circumvent logic by keeping things at a romantic remove from reality. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, under what circumstances a modern head of state such as Polixenes would be detained for so long in another jurisdiction, unless he is, as Hermione teases, being held against his will.

Perhaps more troublingly, the high-def mode of the production opens for scrutiny the psychological questions that have long perplexed spectators and scholars of the play, notably what occasions Leontes’ jealousy in the first place. Unlike Othello’s green-eyed monster, the Sicilian king’s is conceived as though from air, without any rationale, and its sudden reversal into heartbreak, as witnessed by Paulina, audience and cameras, is likewise inexplicable. This is not Aristotelian anagnorisis, rather the hinge for the play’s improbable happy ending. Helikon manage to hint at Leontes’ poor state of mental health with the references to depression but in truth he seems more paranoid than melancholy, and the play doesn’t pursue the issue of whether, when pitiful men are powerful, we ought to pity them.

Polixenes has grown similarly suspicious over the subsequent two decades, and is even more quickly disabused of his animus – one moment he’s all frowns about Florizel’s betrothal to Perdita, and when we next see him with son and daughter-in-law in Sicily he’s part of one big happy family. The production’s rush towards the end skips not just one but several beats as the onstage action is narrated on mic, doubling down on its improbability and doing a disservice to the effort cast and crew alike have put in over the preceding hundred minutes.

In one tentative respect, though, the ending does challenge the cosiness of reunion. At first, we only see Hermione come back to life on screen, that white space where we’ve seen Leontes project and manipulate his fantasies. Although the moment is then recapitulated onstage, the reanimated queen is cut off as she calls her husband’s name, as if to ask whether he can truly be redeemed. Putting a question mark at the end of play that, whether in the seventeenth or twenty-first centuries, has much to say about the misogyny of the powerful reminds us that we are not so far removed from Sicily and Bohemia after all. A sad tale may be best for winter, but a turbulent story such as this is better for these stormy days of spring.

Oh: and before you ask, there’s no bear.

Matthew Grierson
March 2019

Photography courtesy of Helikon

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