The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Composer Simon Slater
Choreographer Fleur Darkin
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
Sunday 31st January 2016, 2 pm
Jon Light as Leontes. King of Sicilia
Simon Armstrong as Polixenes, King of Bohemia
Rachael Sterling as Hermione, wife of Leontes
David Yelland as Antigonus, Sicilian noble
Niamh Cusack as Paulina, wife of Antigonus & Time
James Garnon as Autolycus
Sam Cox as Archidamus / Old Shepherd
Tia Bannon as Perdita, daughter of Leontes
Steffan Donnelly as Florizel, son of Polixenes
Jessica Baglow as Emilia / Mopsa
Fergal McElherron as Camillo, servant to Leontes, then Polixenes; Mariner
Ryan McKen as Dion
Daniel Rabin as Lord
Kirsty Woodward as Lady in Waiting / Dorcas
Tom Kanji as Cleomenes / servant
Dennis Herdsman as gaoler / clown
Stephen Bentley-Klein – MD, violin, trumpet
Matt Bacon – guitars
Jon Banks – santouri, accordion
Joanna Levine – bass viol
This candlelit Wanamaker Playhouse production comes hard on the heels of the elaborate Branagh Company production, which ceased its run just two weeks before this started. My benchmark for The Winter’s Tale remains the magnificent RSC production in 2013. It’s rare for me to see The Winter’s Tale shorn of “concept” in straight Jacobean costume in an unadorned reproduction of the Blackfriar’s private theatre. We have to say shorn of concept though we assume that Shakespeare had intended a classical time frame, with its references to the Delphic Oracle and Apollo. More likely, he was just avoiding Christianity on revenge and retribution.
The play, which I must have seen half a dozen times, appeared in completely fresh light in this production at the Wanamaker Playhouse. My companion has suffered from A-Level Blight with The Winter’s Tale for decades, citing an appalling elderly teacher who had them read it around the class in a monotone. She always hated all the female roles in the play, and found Leontes a character with nary a redeeming feature. It’s just about her least favourite play (though Henry VI Parts 1 & 2 come close).
Jon Light as Leontes
It becomes apparent here that the problem usually is seeing Leontes as a character in a Shakespearean tragedy with that tragic flaw of jealousy. Both recent major versions of Leontes, Jo Stone-Fewings in 2013 and Kenneth Branagh in 2015 were complex, sophisticated, urbane men, who were racked with guilt and remorse, shocked at their own behaviour. Jo Stone-Fewings spent the whole of the second part isolated on a tower above the stage meditating on his folly. Branagh went quite white (or possibly stopped being dyed dark) with remorse. Here we’re on a tight dark candlelit stage. We feel we’re in a murky secret room in some Jacobean palace. Jon Light’s Leontes is a nasty bastard from the outset. He’s watching Hermione and Polixenes jealously from as soon as they appear on stage. He’s quick to anger, shouting in fury. The husband-from-hell makes a lot more sense of the part, and that’s how I feel a wealthy patriarchal Jacobean would have been.
So the first half of the play is unremittingly dark, both physically and mentally. After Judi Dench’s powerfully judgmental Paulina, it’s a good contrast to have Niamh Cusack’s furious and impassioned Paulina. Incidentally, as with the Branagh production, they gave her the role of “Time” introducing the second part of the story, though as her costume changed, they didn’t intend it as “Paulina introducing part two.” Ms Cusack was also in our “Play of the Year 2015” which was The Rehearsal at Chichester.
Antigonus is sent off with the baby to abandon it on a desert shore. The bundle of baby is very present in this one, with cries at appropriate moments. I thought, hang on, they don’t use recorded sound effects at the Wanamaker Playhouse, but perhaps someone was doing the sound from the balcony – the timing was perfect. When Antigonus gets to the desert coast of Bohemia, the candles were entirely quenched so just Antigonus and the Mariner had hand-held lanterns in the darkness. We also got sea noise though whether recorded or created live, I don’t know.
After years of huge projected bears, I was wondering how they were going to do the bear. Incidentally, I disagree with the (as ever) superb Globe programme on the bear. Martin Wiggins says:
(Bear baiting) was one reason why Shakespeare and his colleagues can’t just have hired a performing-bear for the afternoon, as some scholars used to believe: to let such a creature untethered onto the Globe stage would not have been compatible with the safety of the audience and actors, and to do so at a court performance would have been perilously close to high treason. In the earliest production the bear must have been a man in costume.
My old drama lecturer was insistent it was a real bear. He said dancing bears were so popular in the 1600s he’d bet the King’s Men would have had one on the staff as interval and pre-show entertainment. He used to add that if To be or not to be was going badly, they’d have shoved the bear on for a quick dance. OK, he was joking there. But I remember visiting Turkey in the mid-70s. I was shocked to see dancing bears moving around between restaurant tables, or sitting cheerfully begging with their masters. We were scared, but people around were not worried in the slightest. Bears are canine: they train well. I’m not saying they would have used a grizzly, or a polar bear, but a European brown bear would have easily been trusted to scamper across for “Exit pursued by a bear.”
Back to the play. The bear appeared in almost total darkness. It was a vague shape that reared up from the rear doors on its hind legs and then the lantern went out. At this point the music was brilliant during a long spell of darkness. It was abstract, terrifying. Throughout music was used to accentuate lines rather than as a diversion. Then the old shepherd appeard with a single light to stumble about and find the baby Perdita. His son appeared with just one light too.
The running times at The Globe gave the first half as 1 hour 25 minutes, the second as 1 hour 35 minutes, which is the other way around than you’d usually want to do it. However, of all the plays in the canon, the 16 year time shift in The Winter’s Tale totally fixes the interval point. Several lines of the play seemed unfamiliar, and though I’m not as familiar with the text as Hamlet or the Dream, I thought they were cutting less than usual. They also added a lot of business in the second part.
Perdita (Tia Bannon) and Florizel (Stefan Donnely)
The restrictions of a candlelit indoor playhouse are most apparent in the sylvan Bohemia parts. Normally the light totally changes, either to create brightness, or some rural idyll. They can’t do that. Three bits of wood curling over the sides don’t do much, though before the sheep-shearing festival garlands are lifted up. So it’s a “not quite as dark Bohemia.”
Rustic Bohemia: Perdita and Florizel centre. Shepherd’s son left, Old shepherd right. With brazier.
James Garnon, also playing the lead role in Pericles at the Wanamaker is the star turn in part two as Autolycus, the peddler and con-man. It’s a role made for audience interaction and improvisation, and I won’t drop any joke spoilers in here. He accompanies himself on ukulele, emphasizing his lines, and strumming between. The audience is used a great deal. It’s a terrific comedy interpretation with a great range of accents, too. One of the difficult scenes of the play is Shakespeare’s rushed reported resolution of the story, where three lords simply report what might have been a long scene full of Ahs! as everyone works out that Perdita is the long lost daughter. Autocylus, standing at the back and facially reacting to the news … after all, he could have been the messenger and got the rewards … made the scene better than I’ve ever seen it.
There are good dance pieces and set pieces. The three satyrs / sheep dance is a very strong addition. During the sheep shearing festival, a brazier is added at the front, filled with flames. I’m sure they have all this worked out, but we were both really worried by Perdita’s flimsy skirt whirling around in the dances and missing it by inches. I was really hoping that modern fire extinguishers were arrayed behind the stage. I’m sure it’s a fireproof fabric, but it goes very close.
Paulina (Niamh Cusack) and Leontes (Jon Light). Hermione’s statue (Rachael Sterling)
The statue ending is strong. The inner stage was made for that, and candles a the base work. In fact it was both far easier to do than in more elaborate thrust stage settings, but also just as effective. Rachael Sterling did the freeze as well as anyone. I thought Paulina’s explanations of the unexpected wrinkles on Hermione after sixteen years as well as her explanations of why the statue couldn’t be touched (wet oil paint) got far more laughs than they usually do. As I say in earlier reviews. the early 1600s were the peak time for realistic painted wooden statues. Spanish and Austrian religious statues of the era were extremely realistic and finely detailed and life-sized.
The curtain call is worthy of note. On the cast’s exit, the very loud applause continued for longer than I’ve seen it here. It was definitely demanding a further curtain call which didn’t come.
This is playing in repertory with Pericles and Cymbeline. Most of the cast are in Pericles.
They remain the benchmark: detailed Synopsis, Production time line, Sources and context essay (particularly on Robert Greene’s Pandosto), Plays Ancient and Modern on the four late plays in this season, Martin Wiggins on the early years of The Winter’s Tale on stage; Farah Karim-Cooper on “stillness, gesture and female virtue” in the play. John Pitcher on “Boys Eternal” or childhood in the play. The measly two pages of large text in other programmes pall in comparison.
THE WINTER’S TALE ON THIS BLOG
- The Winter’s Tale – RSC 2013
- The Winter’s Tale – Branagh, Kenneth Branagh Company, 2015
- The Winter’s Tale, Cheek by Jowl, 2017
MICHAEL LONGHURST ON THIS BLOG
JAMES GARNON ON THIS BLOG:
As You Like It – Globe (Jacques)
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Wanamaker (Bergetto, Cardinal)
Duchess of Malfi– Wanamaker (Cardinal)
Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic (Don Pedro)
Richard III – Globe / Apollo (Duchess of York / Richmond)
Pericles – Wanamaker (Pericles)
JOHN LIGHT ON THIS BLOG
Carmen Disruption – Almeida, 2015 (Escamillo)
NIAMH CUSACK ON THIS BLOG
The Rehearsal – Chichester Minerva Theatre, 2015