Review: The Winter’s Tale at New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The play kicks off with a portentous blast at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” says young Mamillius and before long he’s dead, his newborn sister cast into the wilderness, and all joy fled.

Review: The Winter’s Tale at New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The Winter's Tale - image by Nobby Clark

But this is a game of two halves and we take our seats after the interval to be transported 16 years forward to a summer scene where joy is freshly found. And the ball that keeps us so entertained through 90 minutes and extra time is Shakespeare’s language – delivered here with such clear intent that it makes a fascinating story shine with brilliance.

Northern Broadsides – always welcome visitors at The New Vic – play as a team at the top of their form. Their familiar northern everyday delivery, not overdone here, complements the updating to modern dress to make the rich language of the storytelling seem entirely appropriate to our time.
So what of the play’s themes? This is the story of a man with power, King Leontes, who becomes insanely jealous of his best friend Polixenes, convincing himself that his wife Hermione is pregnant with Polixenes’ child.

There is no Iago whispering doubts in his ear. Conrad Nelson playing Leontes, and also directing, does it all himself. He gives us a fast-moving descent from a passing glance at his wife’s overly physical playfulness with Polixenes through insecure delusion to conviction and boiling rage at his perceived betrayal. There’s something chillingly modern about that too.

Then the tyrannical outbursts which see the newborn ‘bastard’ abandoned on the ‘shores of Bohemia’.

Discovered by an old shepherd and raised as his own, we see the King’s daughter 16 years later, happily in love and “The Queen of Curds and Cream” at the sheep-shearing feast. The change in tone sweeps along with laugh-out-loud comic turns, woven through delightful song and dance that happily prepare us for the redemption scene we suspect is coming.

This is bohemia with a small ‘b’ – a mix of cowboy hoe-down, Minstrel show, and Irish clog dance. Mike Hugo, in his element playing loveable rogue Autolycus, starts his great Bob Dylan take by testing the microphone with a brilliant “Hey nonny, nonny.” 

There are surprises still in store and I’m not going to spoil them. But you’ll forgive me for saying the lost is found and it happens with an emotive power that had many reaching for their handkerchiefs.

Live theatre with a production as sharp and entertaining as this always wins for me. But increasingly second best is ‘live’ by satellite and if you can’t make it to The New Vic this week (tickets are selling fast) you can see the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company in The Winter’s Tale on screen at Festival Drayton Centre on Thursday, November 26.

By John Hargreaves

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