The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's final plays and something of a genre-defying one; tragi-comedy, perhaps. Shakespeare hurls aside unity of time, place and action, and the earlier warning of the danger and power of evil in the world is not wholly overset by the happy resolution since it places forgiveness and hard-won wisdom alongside a frank acknowledgement of the inevitability of loss. Death, while finally cheated in a coup de théâtre, is an ever-present force.
The zaniness to be explored in part II of the play was foreshadowed, as we sat expectantly in our seats, by the appearance of a free spirit, one Mamillius, who offered me the choice of a little dalek or a fluffy toy caterpillar. This being Oxford, and it being de rigueur just now to proclaim one's gender-awareness credentials, naturally I opted for the caterpillar.
The actual start of this Guiding Light production was perhaps its least satisfactory aspect; a few players seemed to drift rather than walk onto the acting space, and their voice projection was so blurred in scene 1 that I had to move to a seat under the cast's noses in order to follow the dialogue. Fortunately, the audibility issue soon improved, though the rendering by the cast of Shakespeare's blank verse was a little uneven from player to player. Notably good in this respect was Ally Craig as the principled nobleman Camillo; he delivered his lines with the clarity and logical heart of the raisonneur.
This was an actors' piece in that the somewhat featureless set, actually a quasi-corridor in the Mathematical Institute's basement and kitted out here with a few workaday tables and chairs, offered for the first half at least little to delight the eye. All these hard surfaces and floor, glass cabinets and walls, shuttered kiosk-like structure at one end of the area, and lofty, glass atrium roof make quite an unyielding backcloth; it was almost a relief when at the end of Act III something softer popped up by the armful. Costumes were an eclectic mix of mainly lounge suits and cocktail dresses for the King Leontes' court, whereas on the Bohemian coast several of the characters favoured shiny, coloured boots, and the rogueish Autolycus had acquired a (probably pilfered) parka and blue knitted hat.
The mid-play switch from gloomy strife to a reaching-out for the comic plane of resolution at the end mood was signalled both by a charming procession bearing sweets, fairy cakes, paper flowers and bunting, all in technicolor, and by the appearence of the cynical trickster Autolycus ("Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance."). Naomi Heffer's playing of him was a delight. Uninhibited, roaming easily around the playing space and beyond it, bursting with ironic wit, full of slippery but clearly-spoken badinage, acting with her whole body, she lit up the whole playing space - terrific!
But the work that director Markus Beeken and his assistant Efi Gauthier had put in individually with their cast was evident in many instances, not least in the delivery of the extended Shakespearean monologues. There were a couple of moments near the start where the actors were strung uncomfortably across the playing space, but there was effective use of freeze-framing by characters while others discussed them at a remove.
King Leontes is, I think, a difficult part in that his all-but-insane sexual jealousy is difficult to fathom, and the play's radical change of tone very abrupt, latterly leaving him absent from the action until Act V. The tall, rather imposing Jake Griffiths takes his early scenes mildly, and just as I was wondering at his lack of passion he began to develop a head of steam towards an outburst of rage and frustration that was all the more impressive for being a delayed-fuse bomb. His ambivalence regarding now his own helplessness, now his possession of over-arching power, was also well done. As the wronged Queen Hermione, Alex Brinkman-Young demonstrated a touching measure of noble vulnerability, carefully pacing her soliloquies. She was matched by Benedict Turvill's Polixenes, aghast when accused and ringing in his later anger with Florizel.
Some of the acting of the smaller roles was a little muffled in its effect: Jasper-Rose Russell's Zummerzetshire accent rather hampered his delivery, and we could have done with a bit more zip from Antigonus. The uneasy light-heartedness of Act IV was lit up by Autolycus, but his presence apart, I treasured the blue-booted Beth Mabbutt's Clown's throwaway: "I'll go see if the bear be gone from the gentleman and how much he hath eaten."
This is a production six months in the gestation and six weeks in the rehearsing, the kind of serious chamber drama that's an adjunct to the bigger, more frivolous OUDS shows of recent weeks. Directed and performed with input from both head and heart; recommended.