Tragedy? Comedy? Tragicomedy? History play?
The Winter’s Tale – one of Shakespeare’s final works, first performed in 1610 – is all of these. And more.
We saw a fine production of this intriguing play last night, from the ever brilliant Guildford Shakespeare Company, brought to colourful life in the darkly atmospheric Holy Trinity Church.
Never having seen The Winter’s Tale before, piecing the intricacies of the plot together was a challenge at times, demanding full concentration. But the effort was fully rewarded.
All seems well at first, at the court of Leontes, King of Sicilia. He is surrounded by love, from his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, from his own Queen Hermione, his son, faithful retainer Camillo and other loyal courtiers.
But in the blink of a jealous eye, the King’s mood changes and tragedy ensues. Leontes is certain that Hermione is carrying his friend’s baby inside her, and orders the death of Polixenes. But Camillo helps the wronged King to escape.
Leontes initially orders the newly born child to be burned, but Antigonus rescues her and takes her to the safe haven of Bohemia, abandoning Perdita – what an apt name for such a desperate start in life – near the coast.
Back in Sicilia, Queen Hermione and her son Mamillius both die as a result of Leontes’ blind jealousy and rash actions.
For the next 16 years, Perdita is raised in Bohemia by a kindly shepherd, until she falls in love with the disguised Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes.
In the Shakespearian way, a happy ending is somehow conjured out of abject misery. Leontes is granted the good fortune to be reunited with his daughter and – bizarrely – Hermione, when a statue of her is brought back to life.
So is The Winter’s Tale also a morality play?
But whatever the playwright ultimately intended, this production is a joyful journey through the pages of The Winter’s Tale. From the darkness of the initial misdeeds in Sicilia, to the colourful Bhangra-inspired exotic land of Bohemia, and the ultimately happy denouement back in Sicilia, the GSC use the church setting and their natural theatrical exuberance to tell the story in a wholly compelling way.
Leontes doesn’t deserve a happy ending, but who am I to argue with Master Shakespeare?
Thanks to the GSC for another brilliant performance…and here’s to the next 10 years, whether tragic, comic, historic, romantic, moral. Or wholly immoral.