Dreams are toys: Bell Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Written late in his career, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is perhaps one of the stranger of his plays to wrap your head around. Essentially comprising of two very disparate genres – heightened tragedy c. Othello, and bawdy pastoral comedy c. As You Like It – it, today, works on an emotional level more than a dramatic level, and pushes the boundaries of what is possible on stage, both in the Elizabethan theatres and on contemporary stages. Deriving its title from the Elizabethan storytelling mode reminiscent of a fairytale, The Winter’s Tale is classified as one of the Romances by twenty-first century critics. While the term ‘Romance’ derives from the Greek stories from the second and third centuries AD, these stories were, for the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, merely continuations in a rich vein of storytelling; usually episodic, they utilised the processional ‘quest’ motif, and generally involved perilous journeys and final (impossible) recognitions and reunions.
Presented here by Bell Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s less performed plays throughout the world, perhaps because of its stylistic confusion. Directed with warmth and colour by John Bell, this production is enchantingly set inside a child’s bedroom, that of Mamillius, the son of Leontes, King of Sicily. Created out of white curtains, a white bed, and white floor, the austerity and winteriness of its design gives way to gorgeous washes of colour, deep blues and purples, vibrant pinks and yellows and ceruleans. The story unfolds very much from Mamillius’ point of view, yet for all its ingenuity and enchanting cleverness, something doesn’t quite sit right with this production.

Before we go further, Shakespeare’s tale takes some explaining. The Winter’s Tale is the story of the Leontes, King of Sicily, his wife Hermione, and his best friend Polixenes. Convinced Hermione is pregnant by Polixenes, Leontes blindly, jealously, convicts and tries his wife of infidelity and sentences her to prison. In prison, she gives birth to a daughter and soon ‘dies’. Leontes’ eleven-year-old son, Mamillius, also dies. Banishing his infant daughter, she is taken from the court by Antigonus who “exits, pursued by a bear,” and the scene shifts to an (impossible) sea-coast in Bohemia, where the infant girl is discovered by two shepherds and brought up as their own. Sixteen years passes, and the girl is now in love with a shepherdly lad; both of them, it turns out, are of royal blood, but neither are aware of the others’ parentage. Their love is discovered, and they travel back to Sicily where Leontes has come to terms with his rash actions and a statue of Hermione is revealed, almost as if it was alive…
While Leontes is torn to shreds by his jealous perception of Hermione’s relationship with Polixenes, Hermione takes his abuses and rages with grace, and promises that when the truth is known, her innocence shall be restored. While in earlier tragedies such as Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, Shakespeare was concerned with motivations and what drove people to act the way they did, here he has moved past that, moved through it, to examine the consequences and repercussions of such actions. As Keith Sagar writes in the program notes, Shakespeare is deeply interested in “the possibility of redemption from sin.” It’s a haunting idea, and is a wound that takes Leontes and Hermione sixteen years to heal; when she is revealed as a ‘statue’ late in Act Five, her immediate actions are not to slander or attack Leontes for his mistreatment of her, but to forgive him and absolve him. It’s a tremendously bold action on Shakespeare’s part, but one that is ultimately human. While we perhaps can’t quite imagine treating someone like Leontes did Hermione, we can certainly recognise the warmth with which she pardons him, the way that best friends too often forgive us our missteps and callous actions because they see the person within us, beneath our all-too-fallible exteriors. Just like Shakespeare did.
Known perhaps exclusively because of its (in)famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” (III.3), this moment becomes a kind of hinge around which the entire play hangs. Breaking the play’s action into its two distinct genres, the bear as Helen Cooper describes, was an illustration of a motif that “owed its birth and longevity to the fact that it is an enthralling story element, but which was used to tell a story about providence, the disruption and restoration of order and lineal succession, innocence accused and vindicated; and [which] needed new meanings, new justifications [to] give it continued life.” While its resonances were well-known to Jacobean spectators, the bear’s meaning is lost on their twenty-first century counterparts, hence the stage direction’s notoriety for being so “random and meaningless,” a veritable red-herring amongst the play’s core fabric. In Bell’s production, the bear – as with many of play’s moments of ingenuity – is achieved through simple shadow-play, and it is a hauntingly simplistic and theatrical device that amplifies the storytelling nature of this production, further drawing us into the production’s world of dreams and princes, bears, sea-voyages, shepherds, rogues and rascals.
There is much to like here, from Stephen Curtis’ set, Matthew Marshall’s vibrant lighting, Alan John’s Cat Stevens-esque songs and Nate Edmondson’s fairytale sound design. Bell’s direction, as always, is clear and bold, and he has a great deal of fun with the pastoral scenes after interval. The cast, too, are all strong, though the standouts are Michelle Doake’s Paulina and shepherd-wench Dorcas, Helen Thompson’s stately Hermione (looking every inch a Greek statue in Act Five), and Rory Potter’s Mamillius. Terry Serio’s Autolycus is perhaps a second cousin of his John Howard in Keating!, all charm and swagger, but without the eyebrows, lips or glasses. Instead, he capers around in gold platform shoes, flared jeans and a yellow mesh vest, while Philip Dodd’s Camillo speaks his lines with clarity, expression and humanity. As Leontes’ banished-at-birth daughter, Liana Cornell’s Perdita perhaps isn’t as innocent or as shepherdly as she could be, and her scenes with Felix Jozeps’ Florizel lack a certain chemistry; this is, however, made up for in the sheer vibrancy and visual colour of the pastoral scenes, as well as Camillo’s shoes and the snatches of Alan John’s songs.
Amongst all the raucous rambunctiousness, the perplexing nature of Shakepeare’s play still remains. I know that the Romances were a bold experiment in theatrical form and genre, and deliberately mix elements of comedy, tragedy, pastoral and history in their stories to evoke the Romances from which they were drawn and imitate. I know, too, that the Romances, as a genre, often work better on the page than in contemporary productions. While Shakespeare’s characters do not escape the consequences of their actions we, as audiences, are perhaps left puzzled by his interweaving of elements. This is perhaps more of an evolutionary progression of dramatic taste, form and expectation, than anything on Shakespeare’s part. Here, in this play and this production specifically, the role of transmuting the suffering of the characters from one form to another is facilitated by Mamillius who begins to tell us “a sad tale, best for winter.” As a kind of stage manager-cum-magician, he perhaps ‘imagines’ a lot of the second half of Bell’s production, wishing a happier ending upon the story than what was achieved in the court of Sicily. It’s interesting to note here, that it is the boy-prince that dies and not the girl. While it is foolish to read any kind of autobiography into Shakespeare’s plays, it seems almost unavoidable in the Romances as they all contain relatively naïve heroines who are the antidotes to suffering and loss. In Elizabethan theatres, women were played by boys, so perhaps in performance, the loss of a son could be atoned for through the playing of a daughter; it has been suggested that the actor who played Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale would then double as his sister Perdita, ‘sixteen years later’, giving credence to this perceived poignancy. However it was or may seem, there is no doubt that the magic of Shakespeare’s words and plays comes not from without but within. As unwieldy and unfathomable they may seem to us today, Shakespeare seems to be closing a dramatic and dramaturgical circle, asking audiences to indulge of his forgiveness and rendering into poetic drama an “intensified lyricism,” a language of “mercy, love, forgiveness and reconciliation of family conflicts.” A language of stories, of dreams, of magic.
In this respect, Bell’s production succeeds, filling the on-stage child’s bedroom with colour, imagination and an intense dramatic form which cannot be easily dismissed. While Bell’s production ultimately feels too long and too drawn out (clocking in at three hours including interval) and his predilection for textual fidelity is remarkable and admirable, there are some instances – as in the later court scenes, and much of the to-ing and fro-ing of the pastoral scenes – where a filleting down of some of Shakespeare’s action could actually intensify the poetry and fire the collective imaginations of the play tenfold.

Theatre playlist: 14. Moonshadow, Cat Stevens

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