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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


  Tobias Segal and Ethan Hawke

That defining Bardic play about "wonder," The Winter's Tale, receives a rare, properly wondrous staging from Sam Mendes as the inaugural UK outing of the Bridge Project, in which UK and US actors converge to act a repertory season of Shakespeare and Chekhov, a premise of pairings that Mendes first initiated as his farewell from the Donmar Warehouse some seven years ago. Having premiered separately at the start of this year in New York, The Winter's Tale and its companion piece, The Cherry Orchard, opened back-to-back one June Tuesday at London's Old Vic. The Shakespearean kick-off tends to leave in the dust its Russian companion piece - more of which separately - but it would take a lot more than pro forma Chekhov to blunt the impact of this altogether beautiful production, in which an unexpected gathering of talents deliver up a show so rich in feeling that it practically hurts.  

I don't think I ever expected to see Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke on the same stage, though as it happens, they aren't at the same time, given the very particular movement of a play whose own bifurcated structure allows the (far weightier) British members of the cast to inhabit the grim climes of Sicilia, leaving Bohemia to a community of American rustics presided over by Hawke's rollicking Autolycus: a tricky role here played with supreme confidence, even sex appeal, as a cross between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.  

Trying out more accents than Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean , Hawke has his groovy, grungy way with a part that at times leaves him sounding against the odds like Jack Nicholson,the actor's easy command of a guitar surely welcome at the various cast parties that this venture has doubtless enjoyed as it has made its way across the globe on the (circuitous) path from Brooklyn to Waterloo. He's the standout of the American part of the casting equation, which includes Tobias Segal in disconcertingly manic mode as the Young Shepherd and Michael Braun as a Florizel who is dull even by the standards of yet another Shakespearean pretty boy part to place alongside Ferdinand in The Tempest.  

It's the envelopingly grievous clime of Sicilia that sets apart Mendes's approach to a play that isn't generally as moving as one wishes it would be -a challenge that the director and his superlative British quartet of leads meets head on,to tumultuous affect. Few actors allow such ready access to an inner life as Russell Beale, who proves the Leontes of a lifetime from our first sight of him shadowing the easy physicality and natural affections between his wife, Rebecca Hall's ravishing Hermione, and his dear friend, Josh Hamilton's rangy Polixenes. Seeming to move in and out a "tremor cordis" that takes the form of a kind of possession, this Leontes is seen physically separating Polixenes from the Sicilian king's young prince, Mamilius (Morven Christie, doubling as a singularly charmless Perdita), as if to avoid passing on a contagion.  

The irony, of course, is that it is Leontes who has succumbed to a poison of his own making, which will require multiple deaths (or apparent deaths) -and the ministrations of Sinead Cusack's insistent, on this occasion unusually generous-hearted Paulina to release Leontes from his own demons. I've never seen a Leontes so sensitive to the internal contradictions that drive a king, husband, and father who at one point speaks shockingly of burning the very same baby he is then seen tenderly holding. (Polixenes isn't much better, during the Bohemia section voicing comparably threatening actions in the direction of Perdita.) To some degree, the arc of the performance can be charted in Russell Beale's hair, which in the first half assumes an unruliness of near Lear-like proportions only to appear slicked-back and matted after the intermission, as befits a graying character who has shut down  himself (and his hair) with remorse.  

Cusack's gentle Paulina, her authoritativeness borne out of concern and compassion rather than an innate need to scold, makes for a provocative face-off when she pretty much throws Leontes to the ground, a moment that in turn suggests the move toward emotional infancy that the king is facing as his emotional disarray gathers pace. Completing a blazing quartet of assured performances are Paul Jesson's moving middle-man of a Camillo and the fast-ascending Hall as a vision of fertility who is visibly hollowed out by the actions of the play:Hermione's great climactic reappearance (and reawakening) is beautifully handled so as to utilize the audience's imagination, saving more conventional questions about stage trickery to follow the movement at one point across a page of a quill that seems to be speeding along of its own free will.  

The design by Anthony Ward allows the 2009 Tony winner (for his Mary Stuart costumes) to revisit a play on which he previously collaborated with Adrian Noble during Noble's stewardship of the RSC. This production, too, gives us balloons in Bohemia but is most visually striking for its shimmeringly candlelit Sicilia tha acts as a visual force field for faith. That's as it should be for a Winter's Tale that meets head on the most improbable of scenarios and makes converts - no, make that believers - out of us all.


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