The Winter's Tale isn't officially considered one of Shakespeare's Problem Plays but surely it was a close-run thing. In terms of tone it fluctuates wildly between comedy and tragedy, and morally it's pretty dodgy - Leontes isn't an easy protagonist to watch, going as he does on an Othello-like jealous rage (with similarly deadly consequences) but without even the excuse of an Iago egging him on. Polixenes doesn't exactly inspire sympathy in the second half of the play either, threatening to have an old man hanged and disowning his son. Yet it usually manages to come across as an enjoyable play thanks to the high-jinks of the countryside scenes.
The Bridge Project teams this play with The Cherry Orchard (which I'm going to see in August) and evenly splits the cast between British and American actors. Here the different accents are used to the production's advantage, with all the Sicilians being played by Brits and all the Bohemians by Americans. Even for a play with winter in the title though this production feels very cold. Sam Mendes returns to the theatre after a long absence and to be honest it doesn't feel to me as if the spark is still there. There's something anaemic about his production, although the actors do their best. The Sicilian scenes are particularly brutally portrayed and I have to admit to getting bored and wishing Hermione would just hurry up and die, despite Rebecca Hall doing well in the role. Greatest Living Stage Actor Simon Russell BealeTM is watchable as ever, and Mendes makes sure both Hall and Josh Hamilton's Polixenes tower over him at all times, making it clear that Leontes' jealousy is fuelled by Small Man Syndrome. It's another impressive performance from an actor who can make himself so instantly likeable, here going the other way as a believably vicious tyrant.
Things inevitably pick up in the more comic second half, but even then Paul Pyant's lighting doesn't brighten much from the gloom, appearing to set things in perpetual late afternoon. Ethan Hawke gets the scene-stealing role of Autolycus and actually does very well with it, getting a lot of laughs, but not sympathy - his Autolycus' joy in conning everyone he meets owes more to malice than mischief. The Americans have landed the more sympathetic parts, Richard Easton and Tobias Segal also getting big laughs as Old and Young Sheperd respectively, while Michael Braun and Morven Christie make a cute and believably smitten Florizel and Perdita. But where Mendes made his name adding sometimes gimmicky twists in his productions (the Emcee revealing a concentration camp uniform under his coat at the end of Cabaret, Ariel spitting in Prospero's face in The Tempest,) his return to Shakespeare is a bit disappointingly by-the-numbers. The only real spark of invention is in a very clever bit of stage trickery when the message from Delphi arrives - in a very Harry Potter moment, the box opens and a quill jumps out, writing the prophecy onto the table by itself; I'd love to know how they did that, as I couldn't see any sign of strings supporting it. All it really does though is remind you that the imagination is lacking elsewhere in the production.
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare is booking until the 15th of August at the Old Vic.