Review: The Winter’s Tale, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

A Winter’s Tale for a rainy summer’s evening

The Winter’s Tale

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Nicole Cooper with Alan Steele in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Shakespeare’s five act drama The Winter’s Tale is known as one of his “problem plays”. The “problem”, for those who have historically pigeonholed the work of the Man from Stratford, is that the piece defies easy classification.

   In Shakespearean terms, it is neither a straightforward tragedy nor a conventional comedy. Throw in the pastoral fourth act and the drama’s hinging on an oracle from the Ancient Greek god Apollo, and the problem is greater still.

   Indeed, Shakespeare’s story of Leontes, the violently (and erroneously) jealous King of Sicily, has a cast of more than 20 characters. It is a brave choice for a modestly resourced company such as Bard in the Botanics, producer of Glasgow’s annual mini-festival of Shakespeare’s work.

   Set aside the “problem” of how to categorise The Winter’s Tale, director Gordon Barr and his cast of warrior actors, face a series of difficulties. As the play moves from Sicily to the Bohemian countryside and onto the city of Bohemia, we see actors take on two, or even three, roles.

   Then there is the “problem” of Covid-19 and the understandable desire to shorten the play sufficiently as to eliminate the need for an interval (Barr has truncated the piece to an hour and 40 minutes). The outcome, as so often with on-a-shoestring, Shakespeare in the park productions, is an impressively sturdy, enjoyable, if somewhat uneven production.

   Adam Donaldson is affecting (if a little too much in haste) as his Leontes rants himself into the outrageous belief that his pregnant queen, Hermione, is carrying the child of his dear friend and guest Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The award-winning Nicole Cooper plays the blameless queen (whose life is threatened by Leonte’s allegation) with an excellent combination of terror, incredulity and righteous indignation.

   The excellent Alan Steele is the very picture of moral integrity as the courtier Antigonus, who both pleads for Hermione and saves Polixenes from Leonte’s wrath. Indeed, the actor ignites the awkward fourth act in the role of the Older Polixenes, as he explodes in snobbish rage at the proposed marriage of his son, Florizel, to a mere shepherdess.

   Director Barr has shortened the play impressively; even if it rushes towards its implausible, metaphysical conclusion with understandable, but obvious, haste. The modern dress of the production is mainly nondescript, but the premonitory soundtrack is effective.

   Elsewhere, Barr’s economical rendering of the drama loses its footing at times. The fine Stephanie McGregor draws the short straw in being cast as the child prince of Sicily, Mamillius. The consequences are occasionally, and inevitably, uncomfortable.

   More problematically, Bard in the Botanics’ stalwart associate director Jennifer Dick over-emotes in the role of the Sicilian noblewoman Paulina. Unable to keep hold of her character’s lacerating contempt for Leontes, she watches it soar into the air like an escaped balloon.

   Such blemishes mean little, however, to an audience which, on Friday night, had to contend with frequent showers and midges. Barr’s audiences, like his company, will go the extra mile for some summer Shakespeare.

Runs until August 28: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on August 8, 2021

© Mark Brown

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