THE first week of this year’s Shakespeare at Traquair production, The Winter’s Tale, was blessed with great weather, the second week less so.

I caught it on the second Wednesday, a pleasant, breezy evening, if not always enough to disperse the midges. After Tuesday’s rain, however, those wonderful grounds were absolutely glowing, and the peacocks in good voice.

The Winter’s Tale, coming late in Shakespeare’s output, is often classified among the late romances. It is very much a game of two halves, or perhaps a home-and-away fixture, divided between the severity of Sicilia, which was reflected in the relative formality of the walled garden, and the bucolic charms of Bohemia, which were played out in a clearing in the woods.

And there is nothing romantic about that first half. Shakespeare returns to old themes; jealousy, power – how it corrupts, how it is abused - and the suffering of the innocent. We don’t know the source of Leontes jealousy, it may lie in his boyhood relationship with the visiting Polixenes, it may simply be his tragic flaw, but allied to his royal power, it is frightening to behold. Scott Noble puts in a powerful performance as this tortured, cruel, irrational figure, desperately justifying himself to an incredulous world. The promenade situation allows him to direct his argument right in the audience’s faces as he paces up and down in front of them. Shakespeare allows his courtiers and noblemen the freedom to contradict him. They do not live in such fear as, say, Macbeth’s nobles did. So the drama is driven by the dispute between them, and we are drawn in as various characters appeal directly to us. It was oddly reminiscent of all the political argument surrounding us at the time. Carol Norris as Paulina is particularly striking, her delivery having a severe and authoritative tone, a sign that she has a role to play in the outcome…

Leah Moorhouse plays Hermione with all the dignity and pain and strength that Shakespeare requires of his innocently suffering women. She is less pathetic than, say Desdemona, and rightly so. So far, this is the stuff of tragedy: Leontes must surely die to clear the sickness he has loosed upon the kingdom, with Hermione an innocent sacrifice, like Desdemona or Cordelia before her.

And so to the second leg in Bohemia, where the hapless Antigonus (Hugh Salvesen) abandons the baby Perdita and exits, famously, pursued by a bear. Or, in this case, four little robbers with swords, to be dismembered by a bear off in the woods, as reported by shepherd’s son Mike Boyd. Mike and Boyd Wild make a great father and son team of rude mechanicals, an absolutely sure-footed performance from each of them.

Director David Bon has fixed on the figure of Time, the Chorus to guide and inform us. This is played with panache by a masked Alyson Stafford, resplendent in top hat and black suit with long-tailed jacket on which is painted a skeleton, white like an x-ray. She moves us on sixteen years by turning an hour-glass, just like that, to find Polixenes and the faithful “Camilla” planning to attend a rustic fair in disguise to investigate prince Florizel’s apparent interest in a certain shepherd’s daughter.

There is an element of gender-switching in the casting. Perfectly Shakespearian, but not as he knew it: Kathleen Mansfield’s brave and honest Camilla is originally Camillo, and prince Florizel is played by Esme Biggar, so that the two young lovers, who would be played by boys in Shakespeare’s time, are played by girls – and very splendidly, almost in the girl-plays-romantic-male-lead tradition of modern pantomime, with Laura Day a wonderfully innocent and engaging Perdita.

The fair provides the excuse for song, dance and music from the large cast of youngsters and the company’s perennial early-music band, plus some clowning from ace pedlar and con-man Autolycus (Paul Nicolson). We are happily miles away from all that cruelty and suffering in Sicilia. Then, in a distant echo of his one-time friend Leontes, Polixenes strikes. Angus Shearer plays him as sharp-witted and decisive, a bit of a cold fish, in some respects an opposite to Leontes. But now he turns severely on Perdita and her family, and with terrible threats forbids Florizel ever to see his love again.

Of course Perdita’s origins are revealed and it all works out. We are still in the realms of romance…

But what of Leontes, now that Perdita has been restored after sixteen years of penitence? Finally, Shakespeare seems to be offering restoration to a character with flaws of tragic proportions. The famous coming-to-life of Hermione’s statue is a great piece of theatre, but has always been problematic for readers and students. Basically, he liked to be ambiguous: you can take it at face value if you are that gullible, but there is much evidence, notably the reference to the wrinkles Hermione has developed over the years, that points in the other direction. When this Hermione finally flung her arms around her suffering husband’s neck, however, the sense of restoration and forgiveness was quite wonderful, leaving us to applaud yet another S@T triumph.