"Spring Returns to Wintry Hearts"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 13/06/18

‘The Winter’s Tale’ has long been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays – and rightly so. Neither fish nor fowl, it juxtaposes the high tragedy and dark themes of ‘Othello’ with the sun-lit, pastoral comedy of ‘As You Like It’. The interval makes the switch easier but it’s still quite a leap for the audience.

Perhaps changing attitudes are rendering as problematic plays that were not originally considered so; for example, since I first fell for Drama in the Fifties, I have seen great changes in how ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is interpreted and received. Humour is a touchstone for the times. I confess I often find Shakespearean comics tedious, but have learned to live with them in order to enjoy the timeless treasures that make Shakespeare unparalleled. If ‘The Winter’s Tale’ were lacking in timeless treasures, it would not have survived for so long. Fortunately the capable hands of Director Michael Dyer and his talented Festival Players safely steer us to what one (sadly anonymous) reviewer eloquently described, in 1999, as ‘the sudden, unexpected return of spring to wintry hearts [which] has extraordinary spiritual grace.’

Mark Spriggs excels in the really tough role of Leontes, King of Sicily. One minute he is doting on his gracious wife, Queen Hermione (Edmund Attrill), the next he is consumed with murderous jealous rage as she charms, at Leontes’ bidding, his old friend, Polixenes (Jaymes Sygrove) into delaying his departure. Mark’s responses, written on his expressive face, leave us in no doubt that his conviviality is turning poisonously sour. His deadly rage is the more lethal for simmering silently before any words are spoken. As Hermione, Edmund Attrill is the epitome of ‘extraordinary spiritual grace’ bringing tremendous dignity and clarity to this most sorely wronged Queen.

It is important to say this is the tenth all-male play I have seen by the Festival Player and their excellent reputation is, in part, down to the fact that they never caricature women. Hermione is a case in point; well-observed and played with respect. The same comments apply to Matthew Samuel’s Perdita and Jaymes Sygrove’s Paulina; the latter shown as courageous, determined and loyal to her Queen. Jaymes’ eloquent facial expressions reveal the conflict and fear within Paulina as she takes the terrible risk of speaking truth to power, as do the other members of the court. Will Gillham as Antigonus has the unbearable task of abandoning Hermione’s baby, at the King’s command, before being eaten by a bear. Antigonus, like the First Lord (Tom Everatt) tries to reason with Leontes, but the king is in the grip of a terrible, destructive, unfounded jealousy and will not be placated, even as his family is lost to him, apparently for ever.

All the players take two or more parts, and cope with the costume changes with aplomb. I think Frances Holt has surpassed herself with these costumes – they are elegant, striking and, for those actors playing women, graceful and unfussy. As Perdita, Matthew Samuel, (who also plays the sickly Mamillius, the truly tragic son of Leontes and Hermione), handled a costume malfunction with calm efficiency. Pretty Perdita and Polixenes’ dashing son, Florizel (Tom Everatt) make a charming couple, showing the meaning of true love to fathers who are both domestic tyrants.
Will Gillham’s assured Autolycus has fun at the expense of the shepherds, bringing a natural exuberance to the role. As I live in a rural area, I get a bit twitchy when country folk like the shepherds are seen as dim and risible, so I liked Mark Spriggs’ calm and contemplative Shepherd. Tom Everatt as Young Shepherd came perilously close to activating my Wurzel Alert, but a certain sweetness and freshness redeemed him.

No Festival Players production would be complete without the excellent musical direction of Johnny Coppin and the very effective voice work of Trish Knight Webb. Alan Christopher’s set is simple, effective and portable as befits a company that sets up pretty much any place, anywhere. Credit is also due to whoever choreographed the witty country dance. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed a delightful summer evening’s entertainment in the glorious gardens of Cothay Manor.

Unusually for me, I intend to let someone else have the last word. I received this from my friend Vicky: “If you are writing a review about the Festival Players, my comments are FABULOUS! As usual. They are the best and my favourite Shakespeare company, for style, clarity, talent. My top vote for Shakespearean performance goes to the Festival Players every time.”

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