Sometimes designer William Dudley can let his enthusiasms run away with him, especially since he discovered the delights of onstage CGI. Several years ago, his quasi-helicopter sequences for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman in White were reputed to bring on vertigo in some audience members. Now he has dressed his other half Lucy Bailey’s Royal Shakespeare Company revival of The Winter’s Tale in an unending series of digital seascapes.
At first the backdrop projections serve simply to locate Leontes’s cliff-top Sicilian palace, and to engage in a little pathetic fallacy as conditions grow stormier and, well, wintrier in parallel with Leontes’s increasing jealousy. Matters take a turn for the substantial at the end of the first half: when Leontes realises the baselessness of his frenzy, the floor beneath him rises and rises until it looks as if he will spend the next 16 years grieving atop a gasometer.
Amazingly, this structure remains in place upstage centre throughout the scenes set hundreds of miles away in Bohemia (digital tempest and shipwreck – check; digital “pursued by a bear” – check). Bailey and Dudley may be trying to keep the emotional contrast always before us, but the result is in fact to wash it out: what with that rusty pile (now augmented by what looks like a spiral water-slide) and the grey marine background, it seems as if the merry, Lancashire-accented Bohemians are holding their harvest festival on a November afternoon in Barrow-in-Furness.
By the time Leontes finally descends from his eyrie in the final act (with Jo Stone-Fewings uttering every line in an exaggerated groan that I cannot believe was his own idea), the “sombre” card has been comprehensively over-played. The one area in which it unambiguously works is, perversely, the comedy of the trickster Autolycus. Pearce Quigley is a master of lugubrious low-key clowning, which works here to parody the dominant mood as much as to reinforce it.
Overall, though, the stronger performances – such as Rakie Ayola’s forthright Paulina and, in particular, Tara Fitzgerald’s RSC debut as the wronged, but in this case unbowed, Hermione – are not well served. Bailey is only partly successful in limiting her own tendency to be a little over-demonstrative, and meanwhile she gives Dudley far too free a rein.