Now in their the company’s sixth year, Jennifer Sarah Dean’s The Winter’s Tale adds layers to a rarely performed play, with music melding drama and comedy.

The Winter’s Tale follows the fallout after the paranoid King Leontes of Sicilia accuses his pregnant queen Hermione of infidelity with the king of Bohemia. After attempts to reason with him go horribly wrong, the play jumps forward sixteen years to Bohemia, where the lost Sicilian princess Perdita has been raised as a shepherd’s daughter, ready to elope with Florizel, the prince of Bohemia. Melbourne Shakespeare Company note it’s sometimes dubbed the original soap opera, and there’s definitely echoes of Neighbours and Home and Away blended in with music theatre.

With the audience spread out on picnic blankets in Malvern’s Central Park, Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s outdoor seasons are already well suited for changing restrictions. The Winter’s Tale similarly matches their style, with its time skips, shifting genres and exposition lending themselves to contemporary musical medleys. I’m always excited to see how Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s trademark style adapts when the genre shifts towards tragedy – in almost a reverse of their earlier Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale has a dark opening fit for the histories or Othello before shifting to a romantic comedy.

The ensemble wanders the stage chatting with eachother and the audience before the play opens, and this familiarity both makes the dramatic scenes more powerful and helps bookend the return to comedy. After musical director Natalia Calia’s somber medley as Leontes (David Meadows) glances suspiciously at Hermione and Polixenes (Melanie Gibson and Anton Berezin), songs are sparser – the silence of Hermione’s trial and Paulina’s (Elizabeth Slattery) plead is deafening, and Sicilia is almost eerie compared to the loud, vibrant Bohemia. Erin McIntosh’s double casting as Hermione and Leontes’ firstborn son Mamillius and lost daughter Perdita helps tread the gap between drama, romance and comedy, both to explore consequences and bring the play back into the light. In a well cut 90 minute edit, John Reed’s choreography really comes to life in Bohemia, as scheming Autolycus and bumbling shepherds Tref Gare and Emma Austin steal scenes.

Now in their second and third Melbourne Shakespeare Company seasons, costume designer Aislinn Naughton and set designer Hayley James design evolves through countries and decades, with the cut out rooms placed within the gardens. Highlights include the heavy greatcoats in Sicilia, Hermione’s final costume, pastel shepherd outfits, and the shimmering black and gold costumes of the time triad (led by May Jasper), expanded from a single scene to being interwoven through the play as narrators and observers. The characters tags work in a piece with so many shifts of place and time, and are worked into the comedy of paper-thin disguises. Their take on the infamous bear is also really interesting, and in the first Sunday performance a second, dachshund-shaped bear picked a perfect time to escape from the audience – little moments of unpredictability that are always unique to each performance.

With laughter and fun tinged with tragedy, there’s something fitting about The Winter’s Tale’s place in a live theatre scene slowly coming back to life.

Tickets The Winter’s Tale’s performances on Sunday the 14th, Saturday the 20th and Sunday the 21st of March can be bought here

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