BEWARE directors with a concept. As an actor I was once told that by a veteran of the stage that I was lucky enough to learn from. A long time ago now, but judging by the Lyceum’s production of The Winter’s Tale, a rule that still holds true.
Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street
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According to the programme notes, this re-telling of Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy has been relocated from Sicilia/Bohemia to Edinburgh/Fife, a fact represented on stage by no more than the donning of suits in the first act and the use of the Scots tongue in the second.
The Winter’s Tale is a story of madness and redemption. When King Leontes suspects his wife Hermione of adultery his jealousy tears the kingdom apart.
The queen is banished and believed dead, while their daughter Perdita is abandoned among simple shepherd folk. Of course, nothing is at it seems.
A strong company is led by Taggart’s John Michie, a resolute Leontes.
While Michie deftly underplays Leontes’ mental aberration, Frances Grey’s distraught Hermione is nicely pitched although Maureen Beattie’s Paulina feels a little exposed.
Despite this there’s a bittiness to the production that stifles the flow. Too many distractions detract from the action.
Positioning the band in a sound booth Stage Right not only creates sight-line issues but allows every random movement - whether the MD slugging water from a plastic bottle to actor/musicians exiting for their next entrance - to pull focus from the meat of the performance.
If tragedy is the staple of Act One, comedy flits through and lifts Act Two in which Andy Clark’s layered Polixenes comes into his own and Fiona Wood positively shines as Perdita.
The static direction and homogenised delivery of Act One is eschewed in favour of a more playful and conversational approach (Brexit and Trump even get a mention) interspersed liberally with couthy Scots, often played directly to the audience.
That said, it’s one thing to play out, another to engage the audience as you do so.
Shakespeare wrote his words to do the latter, in this production, with the exception of Jimmy Chisholm and John Stahl, characters tend to do the former.
As crafty hobo/salesman Autolycus, Chisholm creates an easy rapport with the audience enticing them into his world. So too, as the Old Shepherd, Stahl is heart-warmingly engaging. Both give a master class in breaking the fourth wall.
That’s the beauty of having such seasoned performers on stage, at the more chaotic moments you can close your eyes and allow the text to weave its magic, safe in the knowledge their next entrance is never far away.
‘A uniquely Scottish take on this bitter-sweet masterpiece’ is how the Royal Lyceum describe their production of The Winter’s Tale.
Contrived, frustrating yet ultimately uplifting, they’re not wrong.
Run ends 4 March