26 March 2012

The Winter's Tale at the Rose

Finally The Rose theatre has put on the sort of show that I go to the theatre for.

The previous six attempts over the last couple of years or so rose little above the bland. They were all "safe" productions with middle-of-the-road stories, simple direction, over flowery sets and not much memorable acting.

You could argue that a Shakespeare play is safe territory too, but it is not when it is delivered in a modern, almost brutal, setting and with an all male cast in a story about two couples.

My hopes were lifted beforehand when Stephen Fry tweeted that he had liked this production in New Zealand recently.

Things got better at the theatre too. The brutally industrial bar area on the ground has been softened by covering some of the concrete with wall paper and adding a few vases of flowers. All they need now is a draft bitter.

Booking was a late decision and the best seats available were in the front row of the Dress Circle but a little to the side.

These were still top priced tickets, those further round were cheaper, and the view I had was perfectly good.

I was immediately impressed by the set. It was simple, stark and a little unusual with the sand falling from the roof on to the stage.

It is a very long time since I saw The Winter's Tale, twenty four years to be precise (it was part of a season of late Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre that I went to), and I had completely forgotten the plot. That probably helped because while one of the happy endings is entirely predictable the other is a surprise that would be lessened by the remembering.

The story starts with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia visiting his childhood friend Leontes, King of Sicilia. Polixenes wants to return and Leontes tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay. Having failed himself, Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to try and she succeeds.

At first Leontes is happy with this but then he begins to ask why she could persuade him when he could not and starts to suspect that they have a relationship and even that the child is wife is carrying is Polixenes'. None of this is true but mad jealous kings make for good stories.

And, before you know it, Hermione is dead, their son is dead and their newly born daughter is abandoned to die in the desert.

The play then jumps forward sixteen years and moves to Bohemia, which seems to be modelled on Glastonbury with its music, exuberance and even a tent.

The mood is very different and the stage is full of light, laughter and love.

This is the love between Polixenes' son, Florize and Perdita, a shepherdess. They are discovered by Polixenes and flee to Sicilia where everything is resolved.

The production is masterful in every respect. As with much of Shakespeare every actor gets a chance to shine with a decent monologue or too and all the cast play their part whether as kings, princesses, henchman or rogues.

It all just works and works very well. It drags you in and keeps you enthralled throughout. These are people you quickly learn to love and to care about. They matter and because they matter the plot matters too.

Sadly Propeller were only in Kingston for a week otherwise I would have gone to Henry V too. Why the Rose let something as good as this slip through their hands is beyond me. Still, looking on the bright side, it is good that they came at all to deliver comfortably the best performance that I have seen at the Rose so far.

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