The irrational tyranny of kings is a well-mined subject in Shakespeare's plays, but the self-destructive jealousy of King Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" is particularly shocking, especially when performed as searingly as the current Royal Shakespeare Company production in New York, a partnership with the Lincoln Center Festival and the Park Avenue Armory.
The tragedy begins warmly, with a playful young Prince Mamillius (Alfie Jones in a review performance) at an Edwardian-style Christmas party, donning a paper crown. It is a tragic glimpse of all that his father, King Leontes, will soon destroy in the kingdom of Sicilia. Things quickly sour, as Greg Hicks' seething portrayal of a delusional and jealous Leontes takes center stage.
Kelly Hunter radiates decency and honor as the pregnant Queen Hermione, yet Leontes' increasing madness causes him to view his wife as a harlot, and to accuse her of having an affair with his lifelong friend, Polixenes (Darrell D'Silva) the king of Bohemia.
David Farr's direction adds powerfully to the scripted impact of the random cruelty of royalty. Hicks is fearsome as Leontes, vitriolic and implacable, prowling scornfully about the stage. He brutally imprisons his wife and directs an aide to kill his old friend.
Antigonus (a stalwart David Rubin) reluctantly takes his deluded king's banished newborn daughter to be abandoned in Polixenes' kingdom. In the midst of a terrible storm, a dreadful fate overtakes him and his party, involving a neat execution of one of Shakespeare's more famously impossible directions, "Exit, pursued by a bear."
Even the persistent Paulina (a regal, formidable Noma Dumezweni), wife to Antigonus and close friend of Hermione, fails to convince Leontes that he is mistaken. Hunter is majestic in her courtroom scene as, wrapped in bloodstained rags, Hermione confronts her husband, declaring her anguish at his mistreatment of her and at having her children torn from her.
Not until Apollo himself rules that Hermione is chaste and Leontes a tyrant, and Mamillius and Hermione both die, does Leontes return, tragically too late, to his senses. While a dark winter of anguished remorse settles over Sicilia, the season and mood completely change in the second half of the play to a magically bright summer festival 16 years later in Bohemia.
Designer Jon Bauser has created a set decoration in Bohemia made of pages from books — mounds of landscape, leaves on trees and even a bear. Book pages also adorn the crudely stomping herdsmen in a fertility dance scene.
The prevalence of pages may reflect the fantastical nature of the tale, one of Shakespeare's last works, which combines many impossible coincidences and even implies rebirth. In a play often viewed as schizophrenic, some continuity is provided by having the ruined library of Leontes provide the pages that adorn the meadows of Bohemia.
Lost princess Perdita (Samantha Young) has been raised by shepherds (comedic performances by Larrington Walker as the father, and Gruffudd Glyn as the slow-witted son) and is wooed by Polixenes' son, Prince Florizel, in disguise as a commoner. Tunji Kasim is delightfully fresh as Florizel, while Young is a sweet, shy Perdita.
An improbable series of events sends everyone packing to Sicilia, hot on the trail of fleeing young lovers. In the deep sorrow of Sicilia, Paulina is still hectoring Leontes, but reconciliation, forgiveness and joy soon abound. In a breathtaking finale, the unveiling of a lifelike statue of Hermione brings the tragi-comedy to a dramatic close.
Farr's fluent combination of arresting staging, lighting (Jon Clark), and both live and recorded music (composer Keith Clouston and sound designer Martin Slavin), along with intelligent acting by the ensemble, create a "Winter's Tale" well worth experiencing.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing five Shakespeare plays in repertory at the Park Avenue Armory, in association with The Ohio University, through Aug. 14.