BBC Four review: The Winter’s Tale
Ivan Radford | On 29, Apr 2021
The Winter’s Tale is perhaps more famous for a stage direction involving a bear than its plot, but Shakespeare’s strange tragi-comedy is stylish and engaging in its own right in this production from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Originally called off in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the play was eventually staged at the empty Stratford-upon-Avon theatre and filmed for BBC Four.
The result is at the conventional end of the digital theatre spectrum, with the actors projecting and playing to the empty seats in the house as though the cameras weren’t there – which, initially, is a shame compared to the more innovative National Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet broadcast recently on Sky Arts. But there’s imagination and magic in this tale, and director Erica Whyman brings it out with creative flourishes.
The most notable comes during that bear stage exit, but there are more subtle touches at play, particularly when it comes to the use of video cameras on-screen. When King Leontes (Joseph Kloska) puts his wife, Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), on trial for having an affair with his friend, King Polixenes (Andrew French), a camera appears to broadcast the courtroom proceedings. It’s a small addition that resonates with the modern day world of trial by media, explicit misogyny and abuse of patriarchal power, but it also draws out the petty, hysterical nature of Leontes, a ruler who relies on that tiny TV camera for his authority, talking directly into its lens, while Hermione steadfastly addresses the auditorium.
Kloska is excellent as the jealous king, who begins the play already boiling over with unnerving energy, before he tips over into manic, deluded anger – and Jacobs is every bit the stoic contrast to the man who tears his family apart.
The production spans 16 odd years, moving from Coronation in the 1950s to the moon landings in the 1960s, and seeing that shifting culture and society around the events helps to reinforce the length of time that the king banished his newborn daughter for. It also gives the play’s split between tragedy and comedy a more natural structure, as we segue into the bohemian world of love and music, which is accompanied by a move from formal, atmospheric and ornate set design to flower-printed clothes and free-flowing ensemble gatherings.
The longer the play goes – and is a lengthy play – the more these kind of embellishments and interest and intrigue. The introduction of British Sign Language (through the excellent actors Bea Webster and William Grint as Emilia and the Young Shepherd) brings an unexpected new layer to Shakespeare’s dialogue. Sometimes, there are missteps, including one jarring to-camera joke about Shakespeare writing King Lear during a pandemic, but the strong cast (including Anne Odeke’s cheeky, Cockney-like Autolycus) help make this unusual production of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed play an absorbing watch.
The Winter’s Tale is available on BBC iPlayer until March 2022