The Winter’s Tale in St James Gardens

It was rather chilly – but well worth it.  This evening in St James Gardens we saw the Globe Theatre’s touring alfresco production of The Winter’s Tale, this year’s Liverpool Shakespeare Festival highlight.

This is from the review from the Wrexham Chronicle:

This was the first time I had ever descended into the glorious St James’ Gardens which lie in a secluded valley in the shadow of Liverpool’s magnificent Anglican Cathedral. To get to them, you have to pass through a gravestone-strewn tunnel from which you emerge into a picturesque glade which, for the past few nights, has been home to the Shakespeare Globe Theatre company, embarking on its first national tour. Entirely appropriately for a group which is usually based on the site where the Bard first presented many of his enduring classics, their presentation in Liverpool gave audiences a chance to see every aspect of their performance both on and off stage.

The fittingly sparse set consisted of little more than a backdrop and catwalk and from my vantage point, I was able to watch the actors wandering to and from the tent that formed their dressing room! While not part of the action, the cast chatted among themselves and even played with the children who formed part of the company. It was a privileged glimpse into the world of a band of strolling players which added a fascinating dimension to the evening, which also saw the actors leave the gardens at the end of the performance alongside the audience members they had so thoroughly entertained.

And my goodness, what a treat we had served up to us with a basic but brilliantly realised interpretation of a Shakespeare play which has always been popular but which, it is fair to say, is not that familiar to 21st century audiences.

King Leontes of Sicily is the devoted friend of the King of Bohemia but ends up convinced his pal is having an affair with his beautiful but heavily pregnant wife Hermione – even to the extent of believing he is not the father of the soon to be born child. Leontes orders the death of his friend, breaks the heart of his wife – who apparently dies in grief after child birth – and then gives instructions that the newborn babe be abandoned in some distant land. It is only through the actions of various noble servants that most of these tragedies are averted and, 16 years later, the babe has grown into the beauteous Perdita, now believed to be the daughter of a kindly shepherd. Perdita captures the heart of Florizel, the son of the King of Bohemia who is, himself, angered at the prospect of his offspring marrying a lowly shepherdess. The young couple flee to a now chastened Leontes who is keen to make amends with his erstwhile friend.

Despite the obvious contrivances on which the story turns, this is a pretty straight forward tale which easily survives the dramatic change in tone from the bitter jealousy which dominates the first half to the pastoral comedy into which it transforms. And the company pulled off the play’s two most difficult conceits by having fun with the infamous inclusion of a bear and providing a challenge which actress Sasha Hall rose to magnificently as a statue of Hermione which comes to life. All the major roles were performed with consummate skill as the actors did their best to ensure everyone could hear them, even though the nature of the setting meant that for much of the time, they had their back to at least part of the audience.

But special mention should be made of the remarkable Fergal McEllherron, not only an accomplished musician but a comedian of great timing who won everybody’s heart as the roguish Autolycus. And there is a potential star of the future in Michael Benz who switched genders to stunning effect to give a commanding portrayal of the wilful Paulina who risks the wrath of a king to stand up for Hermione.

Final praiseworthy mention must go to Max Rubin and Nina Borgner, founders of Lodestar Theatre Company and the architects of the wonderful Liverpool Shakespeare Festival.


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