THE WINTER'S TALE by William Shakespeare, directed by Craig Walker, with Matthew Gibson, Jennifer Roblin, Hollie Stewart, Emma Hunter, Keith Bennie, Ivan Sherry and Walker. Presented by Theatre Kingston at the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). Runs to December 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $23, stu $17, srs $20, Tuesdays pwyc. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Director Craig Walker may push his idea of The Winter's Tale as a Christmas play a bit far, but he offers a clear, intelligent version of Shakespeare's late work. It would be even better with brisker pacing. The fairy-tale-like show opens at a musical Christmas celebration in the court of Sicilian king Leontes, who's become convinced - as if a bolt of lightning had suddenly struck him - that his wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Ordering Polixenes's death and charging the pregnant Hermione with treason, Leontes brings tragedy on everyone in his court.
The play's second half, set mostly in Bohemia, focuses on the children of the two kings but repeats themes and episodes of the first. This time, though, there's a happy ending based on reconciliation, grace and love that restores much of what has been lost.
Walker , who also plays Polixenes, has worked closely with the text and given all the players a good sense of what they're saying. Sometimes conversational, sometimes poetically elevated, the language as well as the narrative moves the action along surely.
He's lucky, in Matthew Gibson , to have an actor who makes Leontes's descent into jealous madness both believable and horrifying. In Walker's staging we become the king's intimates, those to whom he first voices his concerns. This Leontes slips into occasional moments of guilty self-doubt before he repeatedly explodes at anyone who doubts his accusations. Then, discovering his error, Leontes becomes a moaning lost soul.
But the skilful Gibson's not finished surprising us. In the Bohemia section he does intentionally broad comedy as a rustic clown.
While not everyone reaches Gibson's level, Jennifer Roblin 's is a generous, warm-hearted, dignified Hermione, gaining our sympathy from her first scene, and Ivan Sherry , in several roles, switches hats with ease.
But Walker moves the action at such a measured pace that he drains away some of the emotion and spontaneity. This is, after all, a work about sudden thought, sudden action, sudden reconciliation. Thankfully, the final scene retains the magic that makes it one of the best in Shakespeare. But this production could trot a lot faster than its three-hours-plus running time.