The jealous King Leontes falsely accuses his wife Hermione of infidelity with King Polixenes, his best friend, and she dies. Leontes condemns to death by exposure his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes' friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione comes to life, and everyone is reconciled in this richly romantic fable of jealousy amounting to paranoia, devotion and redemption.
In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare offers us three acts of unrelenting tragedy followed by two of restorative comedy, the two separated by the passage of 16 years. Director Agnes Pethers (Journey's End) has in this chamber production (the Pilch Studio playing space seeming even tinier than usual) jettisoned the trickster Autolycus and all but the bone and muscle of the text, and cunningly recruited Sir Jonathan Bate of Worcester College to perform, as an authoritative, hourglass-toting narrator, a linking text prepared by Agnes herself.
The set by Niamh Calway gives us merely an all-black backcloth liberally sprinkled with silver glitter, rather an apt metaphor for both the tragedy of first three acts, later leavened by the sparkle of optimism and Arcadian frolicking. King Leontes (an effective James Fairhead, exploding periodically from apparent lassitude into galvanic rages) is first seen on his throne as Polixenes and Queen Hermione dance around him before the lighting turns royal blue, signalling a mood change.
Other clever moments of lighting and sound (Will Hayman) marked key emotional crises. Agnes Pethers is adept at picking these out in the actors' delivery, for instance when courtier Camillo (a hangdog Harry Berry, with a sly turn of wit) declares himself convinced of the validity of Leontes' suspicion, and again when announcing slowly to Polixenes: 'I am appointed by him to murder you!' whereupon the characters exchange a seemingly endless handshake. Just by virtue of this detail, Pethers' direction snaps the tone adroitly from horror to comedy, reminding us we're watching a tragi-comedy.
When the hour-glass announced a 16-year fast-forward, we found ourselves in a rural though sparsely-populated Arcadia, with Teddy Briggs' shepherdess doing duty for a Shakespearian party of rustics and charmingly indignant in a comically squawing voice, while Tom Fisher (earlier a stout Antigonus and now as Prince Florizel) demonstrated a wide acting range, able to both gambol and sulk convincingly. We rapidly moved on to the dénouement featuring a magical little tableau where Hermione's statue stands four-square behind a lit chapel candle stand while Gabby Woodward's music (was that a glockenspiel?) drifted around us and regeneration is complete.
From the rest of the cast, Paulina, the dead Hermione's champion at court, benefited from Sophie Keynes' notably clear diction and portrayal of both integrity and vitality, while Jonny Wiles' Polixenes moved smoothly round the cramped space and spoke the blank verse beautifully, somehow not distracted by his ludicrous disguise when looking on at the Arcadian revels. When Perdita appeared, Kathryn Cussons was as bright as a button and laughing a lot, a fizzing antidote to the gloom of part I, and the passion of her kiss with Antigonus made me laugh out loud.
The whole production spoke of care – the programme alone is worth the entrance money – thought and imagination as we plumbed the depths of sexual jealousy and tasted the joys of re-birth and reconciliation. This is an object lesson in how to put on quality drama from very limited means, bringing down the curtain on this Michaelmas Term with a bang. Three performances left - be sure to catch it!