IT HAS sometimes seemed as though the one thing that Antony Sher can dependably do upon a stage is absolutely dominate it. Richard III, Tamburlaine the Great, Cyrano de Bergerac, Arturo Ui: his CV does not exactly bulge with the shrinking violets of world drama.
So when the RSC announced that he was to pull off a double in its forthcoming Winter's Tale, it just felt like the upping of an ante. He was scheduled to play the two most prominent male roles: Leontes, the Sicilian king who triggers the apparent tragedy through his irrational belief in his wife's infidelity, and Autolycus, the ballad-selling rogue and pickpocket who hogs the limelight when Leontes is offstage.
I am happy to report that this wheeze has been totally abandoned. Bravura doubling-stunts are best left to tricksy farces such as The Comedy of Errors; The Winter's Tale's modulation between genres requires subtler handing. In the event, Sher has confined himself to Leontes, though "confined" seems scarcely the appropriate word given the rich and complex characterisation he offers in Gregory Doran's Edwardian/ Romanov-style production.
A portly, bearded, mad-eyed figure in ermine and full regalia, he enters a court that stands frozen like statues to the sound of the paranoid whisperings about to invade his mind. Better than any Leontes I have seen, he proceeds to show that the king's manic mistrust is not so much an outbreak of evil as a kind of massive mid-life crisis that is at once frightening, farcical and pathetic. The receding panelled walls of Robert Jones's set subjectively close in on Sher as he regresses into a crouched, childishly sobbing yet mercilessly vindictive breakdown-victim. This is the great insight of the performance: that the spitting hatred is the defence mechanism of a man who, through some sudden intuition of inadequacy, is running scared of his own life. You can see that in the tense, flinching, eyes- averted way he can barely maintain his pose of stiff, judicious contempt in the presence of his accused wife (superbly played by Alexandra Gilbreath). Even as he snarlingly reels from his newborn daughter, you can feel his tremendous attraction towards her, along with the cankered sense of unworthiness that compels him to deny it. Sick to the point of fainting, he cannot let go of his delusion because his delusion is his defence.
The regenerative aspects of the pastoral fourth act are rammed home, so to speak, with a boisterous clog dance by the rustics who thrust phallic root vegetables through their flies. An appealingly Welsh Autolycus, Ian Hughes effects his thefts in the guise of a singing parody of Lionel Bart's Fagin. Estelle Kohler's Paulina is a sublime mix of the formidable and the humorously humane. The one big error is to make Leontes' young son, Mamillius, a pasty weakling in a wheelchair, and to have him performed by the actress (Emily Bruni) who goes on to play the lost and rediscovered daughter, Perdita. The little boy needs to be robust so that his pointless death comes as a harrowing shock, and he should not symbolically metamorphose into his sister, because his demise has to register as a tragedy time cannot redeem. That mistake apart, this is a Winter's Tale impressively told.
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