SHAKESPEARE’S late play The Winter’s Tale is one of his least known, and calls for major suspension of disbelief in this magic-realist plot that combines the conventions of Renaissance and Classical cultures in almost equal measure.
There are two royal courts, a rural idyll, barren seashores and even a bear. And there’s an argument that there is only one way to do it … for all its worth.
That’s the approach taken by Tisbury Arts Group for its second production in the magnificent and atmospheric Commandery at Ansty. Director (and leading actor) Steve Whittingham not only mustered a large cast resplendent in Elizabethan costume, but a Morris dancer in the shape of Cliff Skey and a couple of local sheep … not to mention that bear, of course.
The story, which is separated by an interval of 16 years, is of the destructive power of jealousy and the redemptive power of love. King Leontes suddenly and without reason suspects his pregnant wife of adultery with his oldest friend, neighbouring king Polixenes. As a result of his murderous rage, his friend flees, his wife, having given birth to a daughter, dies when Leontes refuses to believe the oracular proclamation of her innocence, and their son dies too.
The baby is left to die at the seashore by the faithful old Antigonus, who becomes supper for the hungry bear – his bones add to the authenticity of the story!
Fast forward and young Perdita, daughter of a shepherd, is in love with Florizel, the princely and disguised son of Polixenes. You might guess most of the ending.
Throw in a travelling minstrel, robber and general tinker who brags of “Selling all his Trumpery”, a few lusty country wenches, and a faithful retainer, wife/widow of Antigonus, who takes it upon herself to ensure that the grief and guilt-stricken Leontes never forgets his sins for one moment.
Its unfamiliarity means that The Winter’s Tale, well done, can still evoke gasps of surprise and delight from its audience, and those were the sound that filled the Commandery.
Steve Whittingham’s Leontes was truly frightening in his high-pitched rage, Charlie Greenwood a beautifully observed Hermione, Shirley Banas a knowing Paulina, and Dave Milas a dedicated Camillo.
Michael Whittaker was a convincing Antigonus, and Jerome Swan and Christian Allsop perfectly observed as the old shepherd and his son. Dan Evans made the most of his role as Autolycus, with Alex Chase as a grimacing Florizel and Nichola Gee as the strangely noble shepherdess, Perdita. The poor wronged Polixenes is played with due puzzlement by Bryan Farrell.
Tisbury Arts Group put their all into making this very difficult play a hugely enjoyable evening.