There was a lot to enjoy in Northern Broadsides new production of The Winter’s Tale. The first half of the play is cold and dark as a tragedy starts to unfold and then opens out into something quite different as Shakespeare allows what will be a happy ending to come out of nowhere. We never quite know how sunlight and forgiveness is allowed In, but the moment when Leonte’s folly and anger is repented of and then wiped away, by the sight of a statue which lives and breathes, bringing him what he most longs for is one of the most moving moments in all his work. It is a play which moves between low comedy and delicate beauty and it is not easy to get right.
Nowhere is this more true than in the character of Leontes. Sudden irrational jealousy directed at his good and faithful wife, Hermione, which comes on him out of nowhere has to be made sense of and a deeply unlikeable man has to gain our sympathy and earn his second chance for the ending to work properly. Conrad Nelson does a fine job, never overplaying the anger and jealousy- there is no need as it is all in the violent unpleasant language which Shakespeare gives him- and returning to us in the latter part of the play as a broken and contrite man, full of self knowledge, who is unable to forgive himself. He is helped by his own direction and two really good performances from Hannah Barrie and Jack Lord as Hermione and Polixenes. Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia,is a real charmer and Hermione- who is marooned in a grey austere court with a husband who is a difficult man- is glad of the chance for some warmth and fun. Leontes has real cause to worry, whether it has come to anything yet or not. Seeing Polixenes provide his wife with that warmth that he can’t give her tips him over the edge. He will listen to nobody, and the playing out of the consequences of his outraged retaliation towards his baby daughter and his wife, and the death of his young son, make for a grim first half. Only the mercy of Camillo, in a lovely performance by Andy Cryer, allows a thread of hope for the plot to hang on in the second half.
When we arrive in Bohemia sixteen years later things brighten up. Leonte’s daughter Perdita, a charming performance from Vanessa Schofield, is now a kind, lovely young woman, happy and in love, living in a rural idyll. There is dancing, laughter and knockabout humour and a terrific performance from Mike Hugo as the trickster Autolycus. He has a great rapport with the audience which always works very well in the round and he introduces himself with the best parody of a cut price Bob Dylan that you could ever hope to hear. There are obstacles to face before happy endings can be found for everybody but Mamillius the poor dead son, but finally, magically, they are swept away. The last scene is beautifully and simply done with handbells and candles for atmosphere and once again the play has worked its magic. Judged by their own very high standards, in recent years particularly, I didn’t feel this was Northern Broadsides at their absolute best but, as we say up north, they will do for me!