The Cottiers is a beautiful theatre venue — there is something inherently theatrical about a converted church hosting plays (the most recent student theatre production it accommodated was Stag’s Posh in 2016), and this theatricality does a lot to mitigate the frequently dull and meandering production that is The Winter’s Tale.
To say there is nothing worthwhile in the production would be an exaggeration; the framing of the plot as a political drama, although incongruous with the plot, lends it some elegance, even if suits and pencil skirts are a little overused as a student-theatre trope. However, this would appear to be the extent of innovation, and is only applied to the first half of the production, after which it would appear to be an entirely different show, where Bohemia is represented as the land of drunken hippies (and shepherds) complete with frat-house red cups and flower crowns. That the two halves are dissonant is not the greatest offence, the fact that the show appears entirely absent of direction is.
Every scene is played with the same intensity and there is no sense of an overarching plot or tonal variation. As a result, the play is reduced to its individual performances and leaves its actors especially vulnerable to criticism, as half of them them squander their lines, and perform with little conviction or apparent understanding. Jamie McGuire struggles with the weight of playing Leontes and is unfortunately entirely unconvincing, as he orbits the table that awkwardly occupies most of the stage for the first half, delivering most of his lines flatly (perhaps an attempt at menacing?) and occasionally shouts, then bangs his fist on the table. Unfortunately, there is little solace to be found in Hermione, whom Ashley Thompson plays with an affable energy but little more than that. Catherine Hampton bears the plot forward, portraying Paulina with a forceful intelligence and conviction. She presents Leontes with his newborn daughter and delivers a compelling and nuanced damnation of his tyranny, to which McGuire responds with a loud exclamation accompanied by slamming the table, thus robbing the scene of its temporary depth.
Perhaps the strongest indication of directorial choice is found at the end of the first half, with the infamous bear pursuit, and the beginning of the second, where the embodiment of Time appears to announce sixteen years have passed. Unfortunately these instances are very weak; firstly, the bear that dismembers Antigonus is replaced by a gang of youths with forced cockney accents who violently stab him. Apart from the uncomfortable connotation that wild animals and impoverished children are interchangeable, there is no attempt to adapt the text to this change, and Antigonus’ murder is still recounted as a bear attack later in the play. Following this, Time’s appearance is entirely incomprehensible, as the actors roam around the stage and deliver the now disjointed monologue, as if in character, in what resembles a budget imitation of The West Wing.
As said earlier, both halves of the show seem barely connected, and perhaps appropriately, performances in the second half differ greatly from the first. Here we get Harry Langhorn, who performs Autolycus as the human embodiment of a wildebeest stampede; his entire performance is undeservedly attention seeking and incomprehensible as he violently charges across stage, laughs raucously over half of his lines and stamps his feet at any opportunity. Both he and McGuire’s lack of nuance point to a lack of direction, though in very different ways. However, Langhorn is also counteracted by several good performances; Jack Elfick gets to demonstrate a nicely refined Polixenes, Chris Duffy is comically convincing as the Shepherd, and William Watt plays Florizel with charm and textual dexterity. The chorus also features some good performers who are suspiciously wasted in their secondary roles (most notably Jamie Young and Aimée Buchanan).
Overall, however, The Winter’s Tale is not a complete waste of an evening. The show is disjointed and drags, but the production values show a marked increase in quality from the Shakespeare Society’s previous work (especially in comparison to 2016’s spring production of Love’s Labour’s Lost), but also suggests this relatively new society has a long way to go before it begins producing truly impressive and cohesive theatre.