The Winter’s Tale
Royal Shakespeare Company
14 February 2013
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Rakie Ayola – Paulina
Sally Bankes – Dorcas
Daniel Betts – Camillo
Tara Fitzgerald – Hermione
Gavin Fowler – Florizel
Andrew Hanratty – Lord
Nick Holder – Young Shepherd
Kieran Knowles – Gaoler
Adam Levy – Polixenes
Daniel Millar – Dion
Charlotte Mills – Mopsa
Emma Noakes – Perdita
Joseph Pitcher – Cleomenes
Pearce Quigley – Autolycus
David Shaw-Parker – Old Shepherd
Phil Snowden – Mariner
Jo Stone-Fewings – Leontes
Bethan Walker – Emilia
Ben Whybrow – Lord
Duncan Wisbey – Antigonus
Is it a good play for Valentine’s Day, which is when we saw it? Not the Leontes / Hermione scenes! The Winter’s Tale sits at the end of the canon, and is a “problem play”. Problem plays are so beloved of the RSC that apparently this is their fifth production in fifteen years. Like Measure for Measure, it’s also a popular A level set text. The intrinsic problem is structure. It starts off in Sicilia and for 90% of the first “half” (let’s ignore Acts) is a pretty grim tragedy. Then the second pastoral “half” located in Bohemia sets it as a comedy. Add the sudden plot explanation, reported rather than in a scene, as if Shakespeare decided it had run too long, and anyway given the great statue they had sitting among the props, he wanted to get straight to the Hermione statue scene to round it off. On Jacobean statue scenes, see an exhibition of hyper-realistic painted Spanish religious statues of the era, though they were more usually wood than stone.
This production attracted us because we so enjoyed Lucy Bailey’s “Cinema Paradiso” The Taming Of The Shrew in 2012. This version of The Winter’s Tale also sits on a major concept, well-explained in the (essential) RSC programme.
Sicilia and Bohemia are no longer countries. Shakespeare had thought of Classical times for the setting, which was normal for nymphs and shepherds, and so the religious references are to Apollo and the Oracle. B0hemia doesn’t fit with the Ancient Greek world chronologically, culturally nor geographically, though Sicily was a Greek colony. Given that Bohemia (aka the landlocked Czech Republic) was presented with a coast by Shakespeare, changing the settings is just as well. They are now social classes, not countries. Sicilia is a pre-Raphaelite aristocratic sybaritic idyll sometime in the 1860s, and is set on a tall tower perched way above the sea, as if on a cliff in Sorrento. Bohemia is no longer a pastoral Arcadia, but exists at the bottom of the tower and has become a smoky dirty Blackpool in a late 19th century Wakes Week. At least Blackpool does have a beach. The proletariat at play. We can see the pier in the projected background. The tower of the first half has transformed itself into a rusting Helter-Skelter.
The concept is a fabulous device. You walk into a luminous shimmering back projection of the view down from the tower to the sea. The pre-Raphaelite setting has it open with everyone in gorgeous raiment, sprawled stoned senseless on the stage. Leontes is seen with a hubble-bubble pipe, which might explain his paranoid fantasies.
Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings)
These are the Beautiful People, as in How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people, and no doubt someone seeing this version will do it all again set in Apple Corps in London in 1968. Apart from the friendly kiss, we also see Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and Hermione, wife of Leontes, King of Sicilia, apparently sharing a spliff. But All You Need Is Love doesn’t extend to his wife, and Leontes succumbs to jealous rage, then madness, then to being a vicious tyrant. The stunning moment of the play is when he punches Hermione full on her pregnant belly. As he changes, the beautiful clothes are gradually divested. First the robe, then the golden scarf until he is in formal black and white, which is when he places the crown, the symbol of authority, on his head. The dream is over. He condemns his baby daughter, who he now imagines to be Polixenes bastard child to die. On hearing that at the same time, their son Mamillius has died, Hermione “falls into a swoon” and is carried off apparently dead. Ah, well. He was going to behead her anyway.
Both Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Paulina are played fiercer and stronger than is usual for the play, and that’s a vital part of the concept. It’s all heavy stuff, culminating in the tower rising from the stage to the full height of the building, at the top of which Leontes will be stranded for most of the play. Throughout the play, projected filmed sea scenes gradually shift in colour, in Sicilia from glowing brightness, to muted to dark and stormy and rain lashed.
Leontes, stranded on the tower
The first half ends with abandoning the baby princess at the foot of the tower on a beach near Bohemia / Blackpool. The two shepherds, David Shaw-Parker as the father, Nick Holder as the son, are an instantly hilarious double act. The bear which wipes out Antigonus is a projected giant mythical polar bear, upright in the waves, which gets over an intrinsic modern issue with the play. I’m convinced that as Elizabethan theatres sometimes hosted bear-baiting, and as dancing bears were common, the first productions would simply have used a real bear to chase across the stage. Someone dressed up doesn’t make it.
Then bang, as in every modern production (I think) we’re at the interval.
The second half is “North-Western England in Wakes Week”. i.e. Blackpool. The crooked peddler / con merchant Autolycus is a comedy masterpiece by Pearce Quigley, and he has all the right sleight of hand and props (portable Punch & Judy show) to carry the action, and the camp Northern accent reminds you of Russell Harty or even Lily Savage. The play is not one laden with well-known quotations, nor did I study it at any time. I did pick up from my recent work on British and American English a notable liberty with the text. What maids lack from head to heel became from head to fanny with a gesture downwards – I don’t remember the previous line on stage, but it should rhyme with “steel” which “fanny” manifestly doesn’t. It was not text knowledge, but I was pretty sure that “fanny” did not have that meaning in 1611 so looked at the text. I thought his performance so engaging that I’d applaud tiny additions.
The Young Shepherd & Autolycus (disguised)
Florizel, son of the King of Bohemia is one of a group of Morris Dancers. Perdita, the lost princess (Emma Noakes) has a well-studied Lancashire accent. This is terrific stuff, full of fun and comedy. The two very large ladies fighting over the Young Shepherd are great. The programme notes that they studied the postcards of Donald MacGill and Bill Tidy’s Cloggies series in Private Eye to get the mood, and what would an English beach be without two fat ladies (the Bingo Caller’s code for the number 88)?
The Morris dancing is another excellent addition. I thought it all fitted as a concept. Compared to the Australian RSC Comedy of Errors set in a seaside carnival a few years ago, I did feel some of the busy active crowd scenes came across early on as confused and disjointed, but by the time they got to the actual Morris Dance it held together perfectly.
Perdita and Florizel
On concept, direction, acting, costume and set this is memorable production, though for me The Winter’s Tale was never among my favourite dozen Shakespeare plays.
The music was composed by Jon Boden of Bellowhead, and he’s ideal for the folky bits in Bohemia / Blackpool, but equally for the dramatic erection of the tower. As synchronicity would have it, we had tickets for The Winter’s Tale for February 14th in Stratford, and tickets for Bellowhead in Poole for February 15th. See linked review. When we booked, we had no idea we were in for two days of Jon Boden’s music. A minor quibble, the gentle music early on in Act One in the Pre-Raphaelite court masked the line clarity right at that point when you’re accustoming yourself to individual actors’ voices.
The projection is used for Leontes tumbling from the tower in his imagination, and for the sailors falling through the ocean. Both are nods to the Cirque de Soleil’s projection in Ka.
A query rather than a quibble is the amount of gesticulation by Hermione, Leontes and Paulina. I’d noted an orgy of hand movement in Headlong’s Romeo & Juliet last year. I was also aware of it in Sell A Door’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013. Is massive gesticulation the current fashion?
£4. Contained exactly what I wanted to know and read well.
Gratuitous smoking note
I thought the (smokeless) hubble-bubble and Polixenes’ spliff completely justified. I thought the Old Shepherd’s fat cigar justified.
They did not need three courtiers walking on and simultaneously lighting up,. Nor the guy in a deckchair on Blackpool / Bohemia beach smoking. Thee were at least two others. This production gets bottom grade for gratuitous smoking, a double issue when the place is packed with sixth-formers, as it will be with this play.
The thrust stage
See Julie Raby’s blog for notes on how this production worked on RSC’s thrust stage, and was then transferred to York’s conventional stage.