Cheek by Jowl’s Winter’s Tale - as disturbing and chaotic as modern times.

A Winter's Tale.

A Winter's Tale. - Credit: Archant

Cheek By Jowl return to The Cambridge Arts Theatre with a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which is as disturbing and chaotic as modern times.

One of the most interesting things about this play is that the story continues after the tragedy. As in real life, the curtain does not fall at the death of a protagonist, but instead time passes and with it comes regret, repentance and hope for the next generation.

Leontes, King of Sicilia (Orlando James) destroys himself and his young family with the jealous fantasy that his wife Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) is having an affair with his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Edward Sayer).

Artistic Director, Declan Donnellan, interprets this jealousy as full-blown psychosis where we enter the mind of Leontes, with James’s Leontes placing mannequin-like Radmall-Quirke and Sayer (Hermione and Polixenes) in erotic poses, while confiding his paranoia to us in soliloquy.

Here, Orlando James is superb. He terrorises the stage, a victim of his own delusion, and seduces the audience into complicity with his deranged imaginings.

The young royal couple have the appearance of the Cambridges, (Cheek by Jowl always perform in modern dress) the king in suede loafers and his wife in dress and court shoes at eight months pregnant. This makes the unravelling of order in the court and the attack on the queen all the more disturbing.

Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione maintains the dignity and restraint expected of a member of the royal family throughout her harrowing trial, but this lack of vulnerability makes it harder for the audience to connect with her emotionally.

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Joy Richardson is excellent as Paulina, a noblewoman of the court. She exudes confidence mingled with the cynicism of a woman who has been around long enough not to suffer fools gladly. Peter Moreton is equally impressive as Leontes’ counsellor, Antigonus. He retains the diplomacy of a member of the royal household despite his overwhelming urge to save the life of the couple’s baby daughter, Perdita.

Leontes must live with the consequences of his actions, while Perdita begins a new life overseas in the land of Bohemia, reminiscent of rural Ireland where sheep shearing contests provide the entertainment for beer swilling debauched country folk.

Grace Andrews opens the second half of the play as the personification of time. She is sensual and playful and delivers the message of life’s fleeting nature with chilling command. Sixteen years has passed in Bohemia and Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin), raised by a shepherd, has fallen in love with Prince Florizel (Sam Woolf), son of Polixenes. Woolf’s declaration of love is delivered with a simplicity and sincerity that would charm the most jaded cynic.

Donnellan reinvents the wily thief of Bohemia, Autolycus (Ryan Donaldson) from a cruel robber who exploits the good nature of the poor, to hipster talk show host (think Russell Brand meets Jeremy Kyle). Perhaps we are meant to see a parallel in such shows exploiting the working classes, Autolycus, in Greek, “the wolf himself” who lurks among the sheep-shearers.

The comic plaudits must go to Radmall-Quirke whose country girl, Dorcas, is tacky, cocky and almost upstages the other actors, chewing gum while stooping in her high heels and sequinned bodycon dress.

The stark simplicity of Nick Ormerod’s design, principally a bench and a large shipping container, contributes to the sense of transience and transition, while Judith Greenwood’s lighting design is never more effective than the final scene of reconciliation back in Sicilia, where in a tableau, King Leontes is reunited with all that he has lost.

This production, despite the fine performances, fails to stir up great emotion in the audience, but does succeed in holding up a mirror to mental health and the suffering it causes as well as a wistful glance at the fleeting nature of life and the consolation found in the birth of the next generation.

Until Saturday, February 4.