Theatre: It's all a question of time

The Winter's Tale Brighton Festival
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TIME IS of the essence in The Winter's Tale, even appearing in personified form at the start of the fourth act to announce the play's leap over 16 years.

Declan Donnellan's award-winning production, with the matchless Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, gives this temporal preoccupation urgent beauty and poetic amplitude. Repeatedly, the single chime of a clock punctuates the action, either freeze-framing it or startling it into life.

At the beginning, Leontes' court - punctilious in bemedalled naval uniforms (a joke, perhaps, on Shakespeare's endowing the landlocked Bohemia with a coast) - are seen in suspended animation, with Hermione and her little son Mamillius poised on the brink of dancing together. An old, shawled pea-sant woman sweeps the bare stage around them, as though they are already objects in the museum of memory. Then the first chime sounds.

That sequence gives the clue to Donnellan's vision of the piece. Productions tend to focus serially on two different conceptions of time: first, Time the Destroyer (as evidenced in Leontes' mad destructive jealousy, and the troubled nostalgia for lost boyhood innocence) and then Time the Redeemer, in the pastoral recuperations and restorations of the play's second phase.

While not neglecting that broad transition, Donnellan's production is also pervaded by an elusive sense that the present moment holds the past and the future in suspension. The danger is that dwelling on this fact will drive a person mad and unavailable for any true life now, as it does Leontes.

This is a production that lays great emphasis on Mamillius, the little son, who dies as a result of the hero's mania and who, significantly, remains unrestored in the family reunion at the end. With the dark, high- cheekboned good looks of a silent screen star, Pyotr Semak's charismatic, impassioned Leontes directs the bulk of his anger on to this defenceless, sailor-suited child, hauling him back from attempts to escape and subjecting him to brutal interrogation.

And here, intriguingly, the focus of the jealousy is less the wife and friend than the child whose innocence blamelessly mocks that fall from grace which Leontes cannot acknowledge in himself.

So it's only right that, in the most beautiful staging of the statue scene that I can recall, Donnellan should find a moving way of introducing the boy into the climactic tableau. Natalia Akimova's Hermione - whose earlier arraignment is presented as a totalitarian show trial with all the house lights up - is discovered, in statue form, sitting with her back to the audience, one of her arms held out in tentative welcome. As the miracle begins to dawn, the company sings again the bitter-sweet song they had intoned at the opening party. The effects of thawing out from a long existential freeze are here acknowledged with a poetic realism.

Hermione has to heave up a parched-sounding voice, as though learning to speak all over again and, at the sight of her daughter, her head bows with the aching grief of those missing years.

The court becomes immobile, as at the start, and then Mamillius enters to lay a hand of forgiveness upon his father's head - a gesture free from the taint of false consolation, since we recognise that it can only be achieved in just such a wistful, out-of-time moment.

Paul Taylor

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