BAM's The Winter's Tale

There is a stereotype about British classical theatre that says it is stodgy – beautifully spoken, yes, but lacking in passion. I’m the first to argue with people when they claim this, but sometimes, alas, it is true. Such is the case with Sam Mendes’ production of The Winter’s Tale, currently playing at BAM. It is a technically proficient, beautifully spoken, absolutely clear production, with a lovely design. It just lacks heart and that bit of oomph that makes truly great theatre.

The play opens in Sicilia, where everything is peaceful and light. Candles fill the air, the fabrics are light and breezy. Leontes, the king (Simon Russell Beale), and his queen Hermione (Rebecca Hall) are entertaining Polixenes (Josh Hamilton), king of neighboring Bohemia and brother to Leontes. Polixenes is preparing to return to Bohemia, and Leontes jovially entreats him to stay. Polixenes agrees once Hermione asks as well. Leontes suddenly and forcefully believes that Hermione has been unfaithful to him. He quickly accuses her and puts her to trial, against the advice of all his counselors. This action turns out to be the downfall of his family and his kingdom. The carefree atmosphere of Sicilia at the top of the play is lost. And as the projection that greeted the audience suggests, “O, call back yesterday, bid time return,” no matter how desperately we want things to go back the way they were, they never can.

Simon Russell Beale is a capable Leontes. His sudden switch into jealously, which is one of the hardest aspects of this play, is believable. He also manages to retain the audience’s sympathy by endowing Leontes with that rumpled quality that Beale does so well. Leontes is completely in the wrong, and instead of hating him for it, you just feel so bad for his inability to see the truth.

Sinéad Cusack is the stand out in this cast. As Paulina, protector and friend of Hermione, she is strong, direct and full of verve. Her delivery of Shakespeare’s gorgeous, famous monosyllabic line “Good queen, my lord, good queen: I say good queen” is the one moment in the play where you move forward in your chair and your heart beats a little faster.

3 stars
Though March 8th


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