‘The Winter’s Tale’ contains possibly the most well known stage direction in theatre – ‘exit, pursued by a bear’.
Leontes, King of Sicilia, is pursued by something almost as fatal, namely jealousy. The sight of his wife, Hermione, kissing his friend and ally Polixenes, King of Bohemia, sets his rapidly spiralling suspicions, leading to orders for the execution of Hermione and the destruction of their newly born daughter. Polixenes flees Leontes’ wrath, and Leontes’ son Mamilius dies, leaving Leontes distraught and the Sicilian court in disarray. The opening acts of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ are concerned with both the causes of jealousy and the arguments against our darker passions.
Recent revelations about the private life of one William Shakespeare have tended to gloss over his life outwith theatre; he was, like many another of his time, compelled to work partly away from home – a playwright and actor in London in the winter months, a Warwickshire farmer in the summers.
An absent father and husband, whose family saw him fleetingly, might well wonder what went on in the lives of those around him when he was not there, and regret how much of a stranger to them he had been forced to become.
How much lived experience lies among the lines of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is obviously hard to tell, but Shakespeare was unlikely to have been the only member of the King’s Men whose experience of absence included pain and anxiety and whose family lives were lived between seed time and harvest.
Dependency on the weather was not confined to the summer months for the King’s Men, and the acquisition of Blackfriars, an enclosed space, not only meant continual playing to higher-paying audiences but also greater scope for theatrical effect. ‘The Winter’s Tale’ offers a tremendous storm, during which Antigonus, conveying Hermione’s infant daughter Perdita to a place of abandonment, suffers the previously mentioned fatal encounter of an ursine kind.
Perdita, however, survives to grow into the teenage inamorata of Florizel, son of Polixenes. The bringing of resolution to ‘The Winter’s Tale’ devolves on Perdita and Florizel, ably aided and abetted by Camillo, a true ‘sairvant o twa maisters’ and Paulina, Antigonus’ widow.
With its – to our modern eyes – somewhat unsubtle rather than inspiringly scary dénouement, it is now more difficult to make ‘The Winter’s Tale’ work as it once surely did. Do the RSC succeed? This production is undoubtedly very good in parts. The term is used advisedly, as there are a number of standout performances and ample proof that there are no small parts, merely small actors.
However, if Sicilia is a sunny land darkened by Leontes’ wrath, Bohemia is filled with dark satanic mills bathed in the light of sunny-natured peasants, given to morris dancing and broad comedy of the ‘Viz’ variety. Equally, if the bucolic Bohemians are allowed to enunciate in ‘the spik o the place’, one is left wondering why Polixenes and his son seem to lack any trace of accent.
This might well play to metro-parochial audiences but raises interesting questions in other locations. While parts of these islands reinvent their identities using previously disregarded traditions in new and creative ways, the largest national grouping appears to continue to cling to outmoded attitudes to its own past. There’s some attempt to overcome these here, but it feels, rather like Leontes’ reformation, not quite enough.
In fairness to Jo Stone-Ewings, Leontes is a frequently thankless wrestle of a part, and although he fails to gain a full grip, Leontes’ mood swings, from friendly host to outraged husband, from sorrowing guilt to the restoration of his senses, the part is certainly a difficult switchback for any actor to negotiate.
Although Tara Fitzgerald’s Hermione, Daniel Betts’ Camillo and Rakie Ayola’s Paulina all offer opportunities for Leontes’ self-loathing and sense of irrelevance in face of his wife’s blooming pregnancy and his courtiers’ greater perception, these don’t seem to be grasped amidst the sound and fury.
Elsewhere, including the above three named, the sense of ensemble playing of an extremely high order is maintained throughout. William Dudley’s (literally) towering achievement of set design transports us seemingly effortlessly but undoubtedly with great skill from Sicilia to Bohemia and back again, and in its own way stands, the above caveats notwithstanding, for the very considerable and real achievements of this production.