Seeing a pregnant woman punched in the stomach as part of a play is never going to make for a fun, feel-good night out.
Shakespeare’s plays set themselves up to be liked or loathed by audiences, but they are always devilishly interesting, whatever the subject.
This particular scene, showing violence against an expectant mum, formed part of The Winter’s Tale, which has been brought to the Milton Keynes stage this week by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And what a story it is. The tale first unfolds in the Sicilian court of Leontes who, watching his pregnant wife Hermione happily socialise with his lifelong friend Polixenes, jumps to the wrong conclusion and descends into a jealous rage fraught with insane, irrational paranoia.
Hermione is struck by her husband and thrown into prison where she delivers a baby girl, Perdita, who is then abandoned in the middle of a storm. Leontes only repents when he hears news of the death of Hermione and his son Mamillus.
The story later follows a 16-year-old Perdita who has been brought up by shepherds in Bohemia and falls in love with Polixenes’ son...only for more drama to unfold.
In terms of subject matter, I wouldn’t call this my favourite play. Leontes is essentially a wife beater and a would-be baby murderer, whose whims are pandered to because he is a king.
But this production is well acted and well staged, enhancing the layered meaning of the writer’s words, in typical RSC style.
The set is striking, with an extending tower positioned in the centre of the stage, against the projected backdrop of a seascape. This backdrop is at times used to create images which help tell the story or show Leontes’ psychological state in more depth.
The tower itself - on which Leontes is perched in the second half of the play - also seems to draw a distinction between the lofty world of Sicilia and the working world of Bohemia, which is set up as 19th century Lancashire.
The play is packed with powerful performances. Tara Fitzgerald is a wonderful Hermione, particularly in her trial scene in which her tormented exasperation comes across strongly.
Jo Stone-Fewings also plays Leontes effectively, making him a truly unpleasant and irritating character to behold. There are also fine performances from Rakie Ayola as Paulina and Daniel Betts as Camillo. Pearce Quigley also delivers some welcome comic relief as Autolycus.
Not a fun night out, but a powerfully performed and interesting play for all Shakespeare fans.
The Winter’s Tale will run at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday. Visit www.atgtickets.com.