THEATRE / Cold comfort: Paul Taylor on The Winter's Tale, at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
In Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, a knowing and sophisticated theatricality is brought to bear on a simple, primitively powerful myth - of 'death' and resurrection, of spring returning to a world ice-bound in grief and remorse. The trouble with Stephane Braunschweig's staging, brought from the French National Drama Centre in Orleans, is that it's only prepared to keep faith with the theatrical knowingness and sophistication. Self- defeatingly, given that the play is a romance, it's a production that seems bent on not letting you feel anything so crude as a sense of wonder.

The statue scene, for example, is subjected to the kind of wholesale scepticism about happy endings that you might, with more justice, derive from a play like Measure for Measure. It's true that the joy at the close of The Winter's Tale is subtly qualified by our memory of what has been lost for ever and it's consequently a nice touch here that Mamillius's clothes should hang, throughout the scene, as a poignant, silent reminder of the child that not even art can bring back. But instead of scattering flecks of sadness on the ending, Braunschweig engulfs it in a mood of catatonic depression. Far from looking thawed-out by the sudden return of spring, the court of Sicilia here appear to be locked in the grip of galloping post- traumatic stress syndrome.

As the jealous Leontes, Pierre-Alain Chapuis, with his ill-fitting crown, rubbery mouth and comically darting eyes, has the body language of a character in a bourgeois farce who suspects there's a naked man in his wife's wardrobe. He gets the self-degraded aspect of Leontes well; what he quite fails to convey is the terrifying side of the king's delusion, despite the fact that the stark white square of a set rears up at an alarming angle to illustrate the mad tilt of his mind. In a play where the mood is tantalisingly mixed, it's a handicap that the production tends to strike one note at a time.

Making a great deal of sport with a loose red theatre curtain that functions as everything from the bedsheets under which Leontes tormentedly writhes to the cover of Hermione's statue, Braunschweig's version is happiest when helping the play to signal its own fictiveness and joke about its conventions. It's a witty stroke, for example, that the garrulously in-the-know courtier who rubs in the fact that, unlike the rest of us, he was present at the offstage reunion between Leontes and Perdita should be played here by Chapuis, who reappears as a smug, cigar-puffing cod- Frenchman with a transparently painted-on moustache.

When interpreting the drama's deeper levels, though, the production is unmoving and often misguided. Depicting the symbolic figure of Time in the guise of the supposedly deceased Hermione (Irena Dalle) is just one of the ways in which Braunschweig, by refusing to respect the shape and spirit of the myth, misses the heart of the play.

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