The Winter's Tale, Roundhouse, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Now that we know that the Royal Shakespeare Company will present their Stratford-upon-Avon productions in the Roundhouse from 2012, we can start to get used to the occupation with this taster season.

David Farr's handsome revival of The Winter's Tale – much improved since the summer première – is an ideal story for this time of year. The political summit in Sicily veers off into disaster as Leontes throws a jealous fit and turns on his pregnant wife.

These scenes are superbly played by Greg Hicks as Leontes and Kelly Hunter as the wronged Hermione, with the RSC understudy system coming through strongly: the visiting royal, Polixenes, is taken (at the performance I attended) by this season's Romeo, Sam Troughton, and the domino effect elsewhere in the cast causes no great problem.

There's an air of Prussian formality to this section of the play – frock coats in a cold climate – with the little boy Mamillius (Alfie Jones) hiding under the dinner table in the great library where the dignitaries are entertained. "A sad tale's best for winter," he says, and boy do we get one.

The arraignment is almost too painful to watch, Hunter pleading hopelessly in her prison garments and Hicks writhing in physical distaste and righteousness in his chair. Then, thunderbolts: the rejection of the oracle's truth report, the boy's inexplicable death, the queen's "demise"; Hunter will be a remarkable living statue in the astonishing last act.

Jon Bausor's library stacks crash inwards, their contents littering the stage for the rest of the play. In Bohemia, the rustics are decked out in loose pages – and huge phalluses for their country dancing – while the ravenous bear of "Exit pursued by bear" fame comes on like a Gruffalo, literally a paper tiger, devouring Antigonus whole; you can't imagine there will be much left for the second shepherd (Gruffudd Glyn) to bury.

The sheep-shearing scenes are less cheerful than usual, and heavily cut, merely to avoid the difficulty they pose, tut-tut. Samantha Young's Perdita is no soppy "queen of curds and cream" but a feisty wood sprite, and Brian Doherty's Autolycus a proper tinker in his prison clothes; he's finally left out in the snow, no room at the inn for this snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

RSC at the Roundhouse ( to 5 Feb