Review of ‘The Winter’s Tale’: “Twisted as life”

Shakespeare’s late classic brings back the drama, comedy and ambiguity to its birthplace through this new production staged at the venue’s two playhouses. Guillermo Nazara reviews Sean Holmes’s reenvisioned take, to share his thoughts about this revised adaptation on one of the bard’s most debated works.

“O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that envy is probably Shakespeare’s favourite weapon to fuel his plays. From the pinching twinges of slight discomfort to the self-destructive lust of unwholesome hatred, that unfulfilled crave for whatever we see in others but claim as ours is no doubt the Stratfordian’s most common passion when it comes to his conception of the human soul.

The Winter’s Tale is no exception to the appointed rule. A tyrannical kings falls into near madness when he suspects that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Consumed by his rage, he orders for the demise of his close friend (the other alleged traitor in the so-called complot), only to unwrap a series of the most unfortunate and undesired events. Despite its apparently dramatic tone in its premise, critics (not me, I do mindfulness) seem to have had a headache or two while trying to catalog the Bard’s late piece. Though starting as slashing tragedy, the mood takes a unusual maneuver down (or up) to graceful comedy – moving back to its grim roots in its final act but leaving the viewer with a stroke of bliss through its cheerful ending. In other words, a mess for those who need to label a piece to enjoy it, and a masterwork for those who open themselves to new styles of narrative (regardless of its 400-year age).

Keeping the classics afloat for a modern audience is a daunting task to anyone who dares taking it. Though they may have made it to History for a reason (we must presume), our standards as viewers have drastically changed over the years as for what triggers our tears and boosts our laughs (if social media ever allows us to do the latter anymore…). It’s no secret, however, than comedy has aged worse than its counterpoint, with old-fashioned works posing an interesting (and not unlikely, harrowing) challenge for those creatives who are determined to revive them. The Winter’s Tale includes, at the same time, an added defiance to that matter, as the vague, indecisive nature of its style and the inevitable need of balancing such contrasting emotions out makes it markedly difficult to let the piece work – the usual approach being either excessive parody or a camp take, always in search for a lazy applause.

Sean Holmes’s understanding of the material proves, nonetheless, that this is not the case. Exuding an almost perfect equilibrium of lights and shadows, his directional effort has resulted with no question in the most gripping, satisfactory production the Globe has so far presented during their 2022/2023 season. Keeping the original material intact for the tragic moments and allowing its comedy to go with the flow of modern times, his interpretation of the play panders to the ears of classical newcomers and the hearts of devoted connoisseurs – providing the piece with rhythm and appeal, all in all concluding as a most riveting and enjoyable performance.

This effect is enhanced by the use of the venue’s two auditoriums – a definite spot-on regarding the whole montage. Moving the audience back and forth through their in-house and open-air theatres, the pacing is boosted through this emulated sense of exploration – creating a tangible impression of dipping into the characters’ universe, with each of their atmospheres also presenting a clear defined line of their moods. Altogether, Holmes demonstrates to a very high degree his dramatic abilities to combine artistic wisdom with showmanship instinct – in some way mirroring the same successful intentions the author had while penning for his troupe.

As for the cast, their common and irradiative rapport is possibly their most remarkable feature, working as a whole and in perfect tandem through the entire course of the performance. Among them, Sergo Vares in the lead role of Leontes offers an intoxicating rendition filled with subtlety and latent strength, while Ed Gaughan takes the house by storm (and more than once, steals the show) through his astonishing comedic presence. Finally, Nadine Higgin, playing the part of Paulina, gives a very competent portrayal of Paulina through her energetic acting.

Most constantly, the attempts to bring back the classics through new and usually edgier visions tend to fail quite miserably – the common cause being betraying the source thinking that would please a broader audience. This will appeal to such, but undoubtedly will also speak for those who want to enjoy a proper homage to a writer whose talent can never grow too old. If the Globe keeps versioning their productions in this way, we may be in for a true second Renaissance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

All pictures credit to Tristram Kenton.

The Winter’s Tale plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until 16 April. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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