The tragedy of its first half gives way to a carnival atmosphere that prevails for much of the second: the two parts are so different in tone and intention that it hardly stretches credulity to suggest that they were written by different hands.
The UK company Propeller have proved fearless interpreters of Shakespeare’s work, and must have relished tackling The Winter’s Tale, if only to see how they could temper its more leaden passages. They do so by sending forth an all-male cast, camping up certain elements of the play, and being pretty liberal in their overall interpretation of the text.
Leontes, the jealous king, is played straight, while Hermione, the queen he suspects of playing away with his boyhood friend Polixenes, is a role that benefits from being played by a man: the conceit at least distracts from the weakness of her lines. Leontes’ fury is such that no-one can persuade him of his folly, and he orders his newborn baby Perdita to be banished and abandoned on a hillside, where she is discovered by kindly shepherds.
There are some magical touches. Early on, the boy Mallimus clutches a teddy-bear as one would a toy; later — in following Shakespeare’s famous stage instruction: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ — his ghost brandishes it as one would a weapon.
The Winter’s Tale goes on for far too long, and even Propeller seem challenged by its meandering ending. Ultimately, their inventiveness breathes life into the work.