Balloons are much in evidence in Adrian Noble's new production of The Winter's Tale at Stratford. Tethered on long strings, they rear up like gaudy lollipops at the Act 1 party; an airborne Autolycus seems to have untapped the transport-potential in a giant helium-filled bunch of grapes; and, at the sheep shearing festival, red balloons of ludicrously disparate sizes form the mock-testicles of the men who do the satyr-dance, their wagging erections courtesy of the homely floor-mop or brush.
Even allegorical figures find balloons handy. Instead of making the usual personal appearance to bridge the 16-year gap between Acts 3 and 4, Time here sends his speech down by balloon-post to Benjamin Whitrow's Camillo who sits enjoying a post-prandial snooze with Polixenes. It's a charming, absurdist touch to have the speech float in from the blue, and it's an amusing variation to have its contents read out by a puzzled Camillo, casting bemused looks heavenward. Like many of the fresh ideas in this spirited but external production, though, it creates doubts when pondered. It subtly diminishes the good Camillo to suggest that his nostalgic yearning for home needs a supernatural prod of this kind. The speech also tips him off in advance that Perdita is important (thereby scaling down his intuitive sense of her worth when they meet at the festival). And the mythic grandeur and simplicity of Shakespeare's theme is not enhanced by adding to Time the Destroyer and Time the Redeemer the notion of Time the Meddler.
Often pictorially arresting, the production is less frequently moving. Hermione's trial is al fresco so that the spectators can gather, strikingly, under mournful, dripping black umbrellas (the disputants leading a charmed life where the rain is concerned). Face drained white, Samantha Bond is extremely touching and dignified as the Queen (it's a wonderful touch that she says the line 'The Emperor of Russia was my father' not imperiously to the court but as part of a soft, sad aside to the courtier whose hand she is clutching for support). But the storm that breaks out when Leontes defies the oracle is of such showy, Lear-like violence (spectators flattened by the sudden gale; up- ended brollies skidding picturesquely round the stage) that when Gemma Jones's excellent Paulina cries 'This news is mortal to the Queen' you simply feel that she's not the only one who will be a goner if they stick around in these spectacularly inclement conditions.
Like most Leontes, John Nettles is better as the grieving penitent than as the jealous maniac, when (looking remarkably like one or two forebears of our own dear Queen) he is too inclined to register extreme emotion by chopping up the lines into a sort of hyperventilated telegraphese. His portrayal is sometimes helped by Noble's haunting use of translucent, cloudy white blinds in the Sicilian scenes which rise and fall to reinforce a sense of psychological or spiritual division. In the final scene, for example, the court initially gazes wonderingly at the downstage statue from behind the belief-barrier of just such a screen.
Starting in a quasi-Edwardian world, the production moves for the pastoral fourth act into Stanley Spencer's Cookham and a bunting-decked outdoor party complete with local band. From this point on, in the much better second half, proceedings are dominated by Richard McCabe's unignorable Autolycus, his wicked gobstopper eyes rolling and bulging subversively. Using his battered straw hat as a waa-waa mute over his heart, he sings and romps in a giddy, self-delighting parody of tacky 'turns'. He's a shrewdly controlled identity crisis who can slip in and out of impostures (his snooty, cross Kraut is the funniest) as nippily as he slips in and out of other people's pockets. After swapping clothes with Prince Florizel, this Autolycus ends up in the idiotic position of trying to pick his own former pockets in an effort to nick back the nicked goods nestling there. It's a lively addition to an entertaining production not all of whose novelties, alas, convince you that the play has been newly felt.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0789 295623)
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