Sand falls from the sky, as though from some heavenly hourglass, and a small pyjama-clad boy, playing with dolls, screws up his eyes against the terrors of night-time. This is the opening image of Edward Hall's superb all-male staging of The Winter's Tale in the delectably intimate Watermill Theatre. With his Propeller Company, Hall has earned rave reviews for such productions as Rose Rage, which set a slimmed-down version of Shakespeare's first history tetralogy in a meat-suffused abattoir. Here they surpass themselves with a wonderfully acute interpretation of this glorious, but tricky late tragicomedy where winter passes into spring and murderous madness modulates into equivocal redemption.
In an original but piercingly apt directorial touch, the small boy Mamillius (beautiful Tam Williams) haunts the proceedings here. Environed by candle-lit Jacobean panelling, the modern-dress court of Sicilia is a bluff world of cigars and brandy. The boy watches with frowning horror as his father Leontes (the excellent Richard Clothier) topples into the pit of insane jealousy and even stoops to kicking Hermione, the pregnant wife (portrayed with heart-stopping dignity by Simon Scardifield) whom he baselessly suspects of adultery with his best friend.
In depicting the drama's generational progression (youth, to some extent, rectifying what age has wrecked) most productions have the same actress playing Hermione and her long-lost daughter, Perdita. Here, though, it's Tam Williams who graduates from boyhood's pyjamas to a lovely floral frock and from portraying the child who died as a result of the father's berserk suspicions to delineating the girl who survives and reunites the family.
With the theatre decked in garlands, the infamously difficult sheep-shearing festival is here a riot of terrific, unforced comedy. Tony Bell is a disreputable joy as Autolycus, presenting this pick-pocketing rogue as an ageing Northern rocker who manages to fleece James Tucker's blissful Young Shepherd of his entire wardrobe. The idiotic sight of Tucker unwittingly (but avidly) co-operating in this striptease sent tears of mirth streaming down my face.
A creepy, ghost-like atmosphere returns with the fifth act, where Hall puts particular stress on the partial nature of the reconciliation and rebuilt happiness. He's noticed that when the statue of Hermione comes to life, she does not address a word to her husband, speaking only to Perdita. This production intensifies that oddly unsettling aspect. The happy ending unravels, with the courtiers peeling away from the triumphant Leontes. Divesting himself of his frock, Tam Williams becomes once again the son who is conspicuous by his absence at this reunion. He stares at Leontes with accusing incredulity - the whole play seems to be framed as a nightmare of bad fathering - before blowing out the candle with a pained dismissiveness and bringing his ordeal to an end. Unreservedly recommended.
To 19 March (01635 46044)
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