First Night: Sher shines in a Tale wonderfully told

The Winter's Tale Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
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The Independent Online
IT HAS sometimes seemed as though the only thing that Antony Sher can dependably do upon a stage is absolutely dominate it. Richard III, Tamburlaine, 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 coming Winter's Tale, it just felt like upping of the ante. He was scheduled to play the two most prominent male roles: Leontes, the Sicilian king who triggers the apparent tragedy with his baseless belief in his wife's infidelity and Autolycus, the ballad-selling rogue and pick-pocket whose antics hog the limelight when Leontes is off stage. I'm happy to report that this wheeze has been abandoned. Bravura doubling stunts are best left to tricksy farces such as Comedy of Errors: The Winter's Tale is a play whose modulation between genres requires subtler handling.

In the event, Sher has confined himself to Leontes, though "confined" seems scarcely the appropriate word, given the wonderfully rich and complex characterisation he offers in Gregory Doran's Edwardian/Romanov-style production.

A portly, bearded figure in ermine and full regalia, he enters a court frozen like statues to the sound of the paranoiac whisperings that are about to invade his mind. Better than any Leontes, he shows that the king's manic mistrust is not so much evil as a kind of massive mid-life crisis which is once frightening, farcical and pathetic. The receding panelled walls of Robert Jones's set subjectively close in on him as he regresses into a terrified, 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 way he can barely maintain his pose on stiff, judicious detestation in the presence of his accused spouse (superbly played by Alexandra Gilbreath). When he backs away in a frenzy of sobbing and snarling from his new-born daughter, you can feel the tremendous attraction towards her that he is compelled to deny because of some cancerous sense of unworthiness, now perversely justified by his appalling actions.

The regenerative aspects of the pastoral fourth act are rammed home, so to speak, with a clog dance by the rustics who thrust phallic root vegetables through their flies. The one big error is to make Leontes's young son, Mamillius, a pasty weakling in a wheelchair and to have him played by the actress (Emily Bruni), who goes on to play the lost and rediscovered daughter, Perdita. That apart, this is a Winter's Tale impressively told.