The Winter’s Tale at The Lyceum Theatre is part classic Shakespeare and part re-written Scots updated to modern times with our rural setting now not in some imaginary “Bohemia”, but somewhere outside Edinburgh in some equally imaginary rural landscape…and for me, the two just were like oil and water...they did not mix together.
The first half of this performance was simply wonderful, and one of the most absorbing theatre experiences I have had . Although transported to the present day, this was just stylish theatre with a big touch of class and John Michie as King Leontes is perfectly cast and portrays wonderfully a man destroying everything and everyone around him that he has cared for by his own insane and unfounded jealousies. Great performances too from Frances Grey as his Queen Hermione, and Andy Clark as his childhood friend King Polixenes. Maureen Beattie as noblewoman Paulina and Janet Kumah playing the role of noblewoman Camilla charged with the task of poisoning King Polixenes are both outstanding. Some solid performances from other members of the court and advisors too. Using a live quartet of Scottish musicians at carefully scripted moments also worked perfectly here.
Our first half gave us a performance that pulled us as an audience into the story and when I left at the interval, I was really looking forward to the second half. This for me is where everything just stopped working. No return here to the carefully crafted atmosphere of a psychological drama offset with some careful stage sets and lighting plus the excellent performances of the first half. Instead we return as an audience to a sheep shearing fete. We are now 16 years on in our story and the abandoned daughter of King Leontes - Perdita (Fiona Wood) has been brought up by the shepherd (John Stahl) who found her and of course in true Shakespearian double identity roles is unknowingly in love with the only son of King Polixenes – Florizel (Scott Mackie). Add into this the appearance of pedlar and all round rogue Autolycus (Jimmy Chisholm) . This is Shakespeare though and in his hands this scenario would have worked; here however with a switch to “Scots” language and almost pantomime characters and dialogue, one dimensional cartoon characters, the atmosphere of the first half is simply destroyed and I think more than a few members of the audience wondered if they had returned to the same play. The Scots language is a wonderful language, but here it seems to be used to typify every stereotype that has over the years marginalised its usage. Our lovable Shakespearian rogue Autolycus has here nothing lovable about him and seems to be a pantomime character that somehow forgot to leave the stage when the show left this year.
Thankfully, we do return in the last scene to the court of King Leontes, and John Michie grounding us all back into the story. Frances Grey returning as the statue of Queen Hermione is one of those more surreal moments that theatre does so well and that part is played with just that touch of the unreal to make it actually believable to us. Sadly though, our shepherd and his son are tuned into gold shell suited pantomime characters at the end here too.
As always with a performance like this, a mixture of very experienced performers working with newer talent, and this production is the first professional performance of Scott Mackie (Florizel) and that inexperience did show at times. Words have magic, wonderful power in the hands of the right orator, they are not words strings put together. Scott is at the very beginning of his professional theatrical career and I think everyone always has to remember that performers have to learn their craft in front of an audience, and to give them time to develop as artists, and there is no better place for him to learn his craft than in the company of some of the people he is surrounded with in this production.
Why the poor pantomime is here I do not know as it adds nothing to the story, and for me just smashed like a sledgehammer on glass the wonderful atmospheric story set up in the first half...has no one stood back and looked at this as the larger picture at any time?
Notes also must go to our narrator in the in the first and second half - King Leontes’ son Mamillius and winter bear when needed – played on different nights by David Carnie and Will Robertson
This production could so easily have been a classic piece of theatre, but due to the pantomime sequence , it is not so much “The Winter’s Tale” – “Exit, pursued by a bear” as “Exit pursued by a supermarket shopping trolley”.
Review by Tom King