The chill in the air is unmistakable, reinforced by the holographic image of fat snowflakes falling projected onto a progressive series of scrims stretched across the entirety of the Cork Opera House stage. Layered on top of this are washed out home movies depicting the fragmented images of childhood summers long since past. Underneath rumbles composer Mel Mercier’s icy and insistent score. The first indications suggest director Pat Kiernan and designer Paul Keogan have taken to heart the admonition “a sad tale’s best for winter” in staging Shakespeare’s idiosyncratic romance. Time and time again throughout Corcadorca’s production, sound and image combine to confront the audience with arresting, imaginative stage pictures, recalling the company’s previous site-specific stagings of Shakespeare’s work. However, framed here by a traditional proscenium stage, the substance inherent in these striking images does not always translate convincingly in the playing of Shakespeare’s scenes.
Shakespeare, admittedly, has not made the job of telling this particular story an easy one, and Gavin Quinn’s surprisingly conservative adaptation of the text sticks relatively close to the original structure. The Winter’s Tale uncomfortably straddles the creases of bucolic comedy and harrowing tragedy, charming fairy tale and preposterous melodrama, making the task of finding a coherent approach to performance a problematic one. Leontes, King of Sicilia, is hosting his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. When, after nine long months, Polixenes decides to head back home, Leontes tries unsuccessfully to convince him to stay longer. Leontes’ wife Hermione – coincidentally nine months pregnant – intervenes and persuades Polixenes to extend his visit. This instantly inflames Leontes’ jealousy, and, after making an unsuccessful attempt on Polixenes’ life, tries and jails his innocent wife for treason and adultery. Meanwhile, Leontes and Hermione’s newborn daughter is whisked away to Bohemia to live the simple life among a band of goofy but well-meaning shepherds. What follows are a series of incongruous narrative set pieces including an unfortunate bear attack, a boisterous hillbilly hoedown, mistaken identity, royals in disguise, lovers thwarted, reversals of fortune, and the dead seemingly coming back to life.
Faced with such a tough dramaturgical nut to crack, the cast works admirably to ground their performances in strong emotional truths, even when the course of the narrative appears more like a curlicue than an established arc. Garrett Lombard’s Leontes is appropriately gruff and commanding, and the rich tenor of Lombard’s delivery seems made for Shakespeare. While his performance can inspire the requisite combination of fear and pity, Lombard can at times uncomfortably skirt the edges of melodrama. This, to a lesser extent, also goes for Ronan Leahy’s reliable Polixenes, who nonetheless betrays a disarming vulnerability in trying to absorb his friend’s sudden change of heart. Derbhle Crotty delivers a strong turn as the faithful and feisty Paulina, while Mairead McKinley’s Hermione comes across a little flat in the opening scene, but finds real depth once Leontes’ accusations take hold.
However, the inhabitants of Bohemia, led by Frank O’Sullivan’s Shepherd, represent a missed opportunity in releasing the energy, joy and danger that should exist in the play as a whole. Yes, the supporting cast is ultimately charming and convincing, and Raymond Keane’s turn as the roguish Autolycus makes for suitable comic relief - but the cast’s commitment to the broad and bawdy comedy that Shakespeare injects into the play’s second half is unfocused, suggesting a lack of directorial attention that creeps into the production as a whole.
Kiernan crafts very effective scenic shifts that immediately establish the emotional core of the proceeding scene, as when the lovers Florizel (James Murphy) and Perdita (Grace Kelley) greet each other across corners of the stage under a gentle rain of confetti. But the lack of shape and emotional drive to the scenes that these shifts introduce ultimately undermines Kiernan’s theatrical vision, which usually flourishes in Corcadorca’s site-specific work. The scenes essentially can’t live up to the visual hype. As a result, it feels as if the cast is left to fend for themselves at times, trying fiercely to stitch together the sharp and myriad shifts in tone and theme that make up the play. The result is a production that consistently telegraphs its ambitions while falling just short of them.
Jesse Weaver was recently awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.