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Review: RSC “The Winter’s Tale” on DVD – 1999 (****)

The RSC production of The Winter’s Tale  is available as a DVD  from  Amazon.co.uk  for £19.73 and from Amazon.com for $14.79
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.

Our Bottom Line:

All in all, it’s certainly not a perfect version of the play (not that such a thing could ever exist).  It’s still a very strong production which offers an interesting take on the character of Leontes’, and is definitely worth watching. Particularly given that hardly anyone else has bothered to make a film of it, so you haven’t really got much choice [if you want to watch The Winter’s Tale]

Our Review (****)

As this will be my last review for a while, [Caitlin’s away on a summer acting course. Ed] I thought I’d go back to an actual Shakespeare play; in fact, one of my absolute favourites: The Winter’s Tale. It’s a pretty odd play, one of Shakespeare’s later “romances”. The first and second halves seem rather at odds with one another, with the first half playing like a typical tragedy in fast forward, and the second half undoing most of the damage and giving us a happy ending and couples living happily ever after. It tells the story of Leontes (Anthony Sher), the King of Sicilia, who loses everything in a fit of mad jealousy.

The second half opens sixteen years after the events of the first half, with the children of the two kings, Polixenes and Leontes, who help to bring joy and hope back to their families and kingdoms. Shakespeare plays with language and pentameter more in this play than many of his earlier works, providing a significant challenge for any actor playing Leontes. There is also an interesting job for any costume and set designer, providing the contrast between the tragedy of Leontes’ Sicilian court and the revelry in the Bohemian countryside.

The production opens on a very dark, sombre looking stage with a huge sheet hanging overhead, lit with swirling blue colours. This sheet stays there like a great ominous cloud throughout the first half; other than this, the only real set is very simple wooden panelling along either side of the stage, and occasional tables, chairs, etc. The colour palette is muted and cool, with most costumes being black, white and grey, with the occasional dark purple and red or silvery blue. Even the lighting feels cold and stark. The period seems to be late 1800s, with the men in tailcoats and the women in what appear to be pretty restrictive dresses. There’s also a really inordinate amount of facial hair. The most opulent costume is that of Leontes during the court scene and at the opening of the play, when he wears an enormous jewelled, fur cloak and similarly encrusted, very heavy-looking crown. Perhaps in this Victorian-style setting we can see a little more easily how Leontes comes up with the bizarre conviction that his wife is sleeping with his best friend. In a society as restricted and repressed as this, perhaps the minor things he mentions seeing them do together would have been seen as flirtatious and inappropriate? It still seems a stretch.

Anthony Sher, perhaps more than any other Leontes I’ve seen, attempts to make the descent into madness and jealousy more gradual and believable. He is,

Leontes in his finery

Leontes in his finery

to some extent, successful. He doesn’t come straight in with an angry, nasty sounding “Too hot, too hot!”. He himself seems surprised by the feeling of unease he has when seeing his friend and wife together. He seems to be confused by this, and yet to realise more and more as he speaks that he cannot shake this feeling. Throughout the first half, he is not just a mad, raging king; he seems infirm and almost frail, as if the disease of his mind is eating away at the rest of him. At one point he falls with a crash onto his back, simply unable to hold himself up, and he spends much of the first half wearing what appears to be a dressing gown, with his hair wild and unkempt. It’s perhaps a more human, and more sympathetic version of Leontes than in many productions. In fact, I actually prefer a more aggressive, confident Leontes, who does not doubt his own conviction until he repents at the end of Act 3 Scene 2. His sudden jealousy is so strange and seemingly so without cause that to attempt to make it more convincing and reasonable seems somewhat pointless. This is hardly the only improbable part of the play, may as well commit to the weirdness. Nevertheless, it is an interesting interpretation of the part.

Alexandra Gilbreath does a fairly good job as Hermione. There’s a quiet strength and dignity to the character that she certainly captures, and some of the playfulness of her persuading Polixenes to stay in Sicilia also comes out. Unfortunately I found it difficult to focus much on her performance because I found her voice incredibly irritating. There’s a breathy, almost drawling quality about it that just made me want to shake her. I don’t know, perhaps it’s just a personal quibble, and it might not be an issue at all to most viewers. For me, though, it was, sadly, a major distraction. (As a side note, this isn’t the only time I’ve had this issue with a production of this play; in the 2013 RSC Winter’s Tale, Perdita looked perfect but every time she opened her mouth a hideous, obviously put on Northern English accent came out which made me wish she had fewer- or no- lines). Estelle Kohler, fortunately, has a perfectly pleasant voice, and so I was able to enjoy her powerful and dominating Paulina to the full. This is perhaps one of my favourite characters in all of Shakespeare’s canon and Kohler certainly does her justice; she is more than a match for Sher’s Leontes and if it is true that Antigonus “fears his wife” as Leontes claims, we can’t really blame him! She’s not a lady to be opposed lightly.

In the final scene of the first half, the hanging sheet falls, and is used as part of a clever interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and probably weirdest, stage directions. Most modern audiences would probably find a fake bear being wheeled onstage or a man in a costume laughable, so here the bear pursuing Antigonus is more of a vague shape under the huge cloud of fabric which envelops him. The second half of the play introduces a variety of new characters, the first of whom are the old shepherd and his son. They are both comedic, fairly foolish characters, particularly the son, who in some versions of the script is referred to as “Clown”. James Hayes and Christopher Brand are both excellent in these parts, getting plenty of laughs while still being endearingly affectionate towards Perdita, whom they adopt when they find her abandoned on the shore. Another very memorable comedic character is the pickpocket, Autolycus. He is rather reminiscent of some of Shakespeare’s fools, who are entertaining and amusing but surprisingly insightful. Ian Hughes’ version with his strong Welsh accent and fairly small stature is particularly funny when over the course of a scene he steals and puts on all of the very tall Young Shepherd’s clothes, leaving the blissfully unaware shepherd leaving in nothing but his underwear, and Autolycus in a pair of trousers about a foot too long for him.

Florizel and Perdita

Florizel and Perdita

This act also introduces the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel; daughter or Leontes and son of Polixenes. Emily Bruni (who appears earlier as Mamillius) is a lovely Perdita, although where she picked up the Irish accent is rather mysterious. She also captures the determination, intelligence and fire of a character who could be twisted into another of those horrible, sweet, pathetic Shakespearean heroines. Ryan McCluskey’s Florizel is rather less interesting, but then the character himself is less compelling. McCluskey does a good job of portraying a fairly average young Shakespearean lover. While the atmosphere of these scenes is fairly light, the set and costumes don’t reflect this as much as they could. They are certainly far less restrictive and much simpler than those of the first half, but it would have been nice to see more bright colours, a less sparse set, and perhaps some warmer lighting, to emphasise the change in mood from Sicilia’s court to Bohemia’s countryside.


Perhaps the strangest thing about this play, to me, is not the events of the plot, but the fact that what could have been the most compelling and emotionally

The Statue of Hermione

The Statue of Hermione

charged scene (other than Hermione’s return) happens offstage. Rather than seeing the reveal of Perdita as Leontes daughter and his reunion with his child, Polixenes and Leontes forgiving each other and calling each other brother and Paulina embracing Perdita while weeping for her mother, we’re told about it later by some random lords and servants. This isn’t, of course, a fault of this production, but the strangeness of this struck me particularly strongly when watching it. We do, however, see Leontes being reunited with his wife after believing her to be dead for sixteen years. This is probably one of the most miraculous, wondrous moments in any Shakespeare play, and it certainly makes an impact in this production. The “statue” of Hermione is dressed and posed almost like a figure of the Virgin Mary, a paragon of virtue and goodness. This seems very appropriate, after her husband’s false accusations. Hermione says very little in this scene but Gilbreath still manages to convey her joy at being reunited with her daughter and repentant husband. Perdita is conveniently now a princess, and can live happily ever after with Florizel and her newly found parents, and even Paulina is paired off with the faithful companion to both kings, Camillo. It’s a wonderfully hopeful, redemptive end to what could have been a grim tragedy.

All in all, it’s certainly not a perfect version of the play (not that such a thing could ever exist). The style is rather sombre for my taste, the interpretation of Leontes doesn’t work as well for me as other versions, and it’s not the most creative, lively version of the play I’ve seen (it’s also not the most fun if you’re just looking for something light to watch for the evening). However, it’s still a very strong production which offers an interesting take on the character of Leontes’, and is definitely worth watching for those looking to broaden their experience of the slightly more obscure plays in the canon, or as a new interpretation for fans of the play. Particularly given that hardly anyone else has bothered to make a film of it, so you haven’t really got much choice.

Caitlin Morris,


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