As every English student knows, Shakespeare’s later works – into which he tried to pack every plot he could come up with before he popped his clogs – are known as ‘problem plays’. Cambridge University American Stage Tour attempts to find a solution to The Winter’s Tale through a twisted logic sourced in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Initially, these appear an unlikely, if ambitious, inspiration for the telling of a very adult fairy-tale. The story of King Leontes, whose relationship with his wife Hermione is spoiled by an unmanageable sexual jealousy which threatens the lives of his entire family, seems a far cry from Alice’s innocent adventures in Wonderland. But CAST director, Jeff James, suggests convincingly that the King’s daughter, Perdita, who escapes his wrath to grow up in the gently bonkers world of Bohemia, is the youthful key to a dreamily complex plot.
This version of Leontes’s court is peopled by both human and puppet attendants, alerting the audience to the fact that we are receiving a boy’s-eye-view of the story. Royal power games are nonsensical to Leontes’s young son, Mamillius, lugging his puppet-dolls around the stage, whilst the grown-ups arguing above his head do not realise that their actions are little more than his dreams. Rose Mclaren demonstrates genuinely impressive range in her twin performances as the young prince and his sweet sister Perdita, but Ed Martineau proves a rather ineffectual king.
It is tempting to wonder what American audiences made of a student production that presents Leontes’s death-dealing dispute as if it were merely academic. CAST misses an opportunity to compare the threatening lunatic logic of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland to the darkly obsessive speeches given to Leontes by Shakespeare. Even Shakespeare’s Mamillius recognises that this play’s first act represents a ‘sad’ (in the Elizabethan sense of ‘serious’) tale.
However, the Cambridge audience was delighted by the interpretation of Shakespeare’s surreal, time-travelling prologue as a magical rabbit-hole through which we arrived in a Bohemia populated by hatters, hares and a fairytale prince and princess. Here better use was made of designer Bethan Bide’s elegantly fantastical aesthetic, and Wonderland absurdity was energetically married to Shakespearean slapstick. Owen Holland provided a charismatic Autolycus and Jess Crawford shone as Florizel, her same-sex pairing with Mclaren’s Perdita the most convincing of the romances played out on stage. Molly Goyer Gorman as the March Hare made an energetic entry into Bohemia. If CAST simply expend the same enthusiasm on Act One they will soon find their audiences curiouser and curiouser.