Aotea Centre
April 8-12 | Reviewed by Renee Liang (contains spoilers)

EXPECTATIONS were again high on the opening night of The Winter’s Tale, the next offering from the Bridge Project. Once again, they did not disappoint, serving up a nuanced and intelligent interpretation.

Although it was my first time seeing The Winter’s Tale, it is easy to see how it has baffled theatre directors over the years. It’s a play that seems to change genres part way through, turning from a Greek-style tragedy (complete with an Oracle) to slapstick pastoral comedy, before moving back to tragedy. The Bridge Project deals with this by shifting style, set and palette, prefacing this (before the interval) with a direct-to-audience address from the Shepherd who changes characters to become Time. This is the first, but not the last, time that the fourth wall is broken. It’s an effective device that confuses, delights and intrigues, pretty much my reaction to the whole play.

But back to the beginning. The play opens with King Leontes of Sicilia (Simon Russell Beale, again proving his ability to anchor a production) becoming rabidly jealous that his young queen, Hermione (a passionate Rebecca Hall) is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (Josh Hamilton, in a restrained performance). Despite the attempted interventions of his best friends and advisers, Leontes has his heavily pregnant queen jailed, setting in play a chain of events that will see him bereft of all he treasures – his family and his friends.

Played on a sombre set lit with a profusion of candles, Beale portrays the king as an ordinary human being who makes ordinary mistakes, albeit with the self-righteousness of someone who has always had everything he wants. The decision to costume in western-style suits, rather than ‘royal’ regalia, underlines the timelessness of his character – it is sobering to think that powerful men everywhere make decisions based on suspicion rather than evidence. (Some analyses of this play suggest that Shakespeare may have had political commentary as one of his motivations.) However unlike most absolute dictators, Leonte’s comeuppance is swift.

The second half of the play shifts focus to a pastel-coloured Bohemia, the set referencing the pastoral America of such authors as Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie). Mixing clichés with gay and deliberate abandon, shepherds and shepherdesses cavort in Bacchalanian splendour. There is a particularly well-choreographed, rude dance involving balloons and representations of genitalia. This is one of the many WTF? moments in this part of the play, which, as my co-reviewer pointed out, is entirely in keeping with the coarse slapstick that Shakespeare reputedly included to keep rowdier audience members attentive.

Speaking of comedy, Ethan Hawke redeems his too-brief appearance in The Cherry Orchard by here taking a pivotal role as Autolycus, ‘a rogue’. Drawing the audience in on his schemes by means of sly winks and sideways looks, he systematically strips each character of their wallets and takes our hearts in the process (no prior bias here, of course).

At times it is easy to forget we are watching Shakespeare. So relaxed is the delivery of the prose, so seemingly contemporary, that we could be watching a modern play. Hawke’s main prop is a guitar and yes, he sings, and well, hillbilly-type music. In fact there are a lot of songs, so much so that at times you wonder whether it’s about to become a musical – but the drama always pulls us back. The smooth orchestration of bodies, complex props and sets in what is an ambitious staging, is testament to the utter quality of this cast. Acknowledgement must also be given to Richard Easton (Old Shepherd) and Tobias Segal (Young Shepherd), whose clowning skills are an utter delight.

The final act, back in sombre Sicilia, draws us back to earth, and to the core themes of reconciliation, fidelity and truth. In an intensely moving finale, Hall and Beale are ably supported by Sinead Cusack as Paulina. The statue scene is one which in less experienced hands could come off as melodramatic cliché, but we have nothing to fear in the hands of these actors. I may be easily moved, but I wasn’t the only audience member crying. The standing ovation that followed was a natural conclusion.

If you can, go and see this play – the Bridge Project aren’t here for long and who knows when a company of this calibre will come this way again. It may be pricey but it’s worth it.