April 24, 2017, by Peter Kirwan
The Winter’s Tale (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Barbican: A Year On
Regular readers will know that I’m writing a book on Cheek by Jowl, a labour of love that will hopefully be out in 2018. It’s been fifteen months since I went out to Paris to watch the first two performances of The Winter’s Tale after being afforded the extraordinary privilege of spending a few days observing rehearsals, and I’ve spent much of the intervening time writing about the production, giving talks on it and interviewing company members. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time thinking about a single show. So it was a delight to catch up with the production, now nearing the end of its international tour, and see just how much an already wonderful production had developed. I’ve already written about it on the blog here, so this review will concentrate on what was new to me.
The world of Declan Donnellan’s production was suffused by a toxic masculinity, embodied in Orlando James’s Leontes. This young king couldn’t stay still for a moment, and the company had ramped up the levels of aggressive energy between Leontes and Tom Cawte’s Mamillius. The constant play-fighting in the opening scenes, with both the eager Mamillius and the reticent Polixenes (Edward Sayer), powered the dynamics of the Sicilia scenes, and the punching carried the present threat of turning nasty, as indeed when Leontes struck Mamillius for real in rage. Mamillius was obsessed with his father, never deterred from trying to be close to him for too long, and the aggression he was taught translated into his behaviour towards others, as he play-punched at Camillo (David Carr, one of two new cast members since the original run) and kicked the ladies-in-waiting away while he cuddled up to his mother. In a production full of superlative performances, Cawte stood out as perhaps the single biggest revelation of what can be done with a small role with the right actor – or in this case, with a professional actor as opposed to a child-shaped prop. Mamillius’s tantrums, neediness, insistence on being the centre of attention, threw the whole family dynamic into desperation, raising the stakes of his presence and, ultimately, absence.
The ramping up of the toxic masculinity in Leontes and Mamillius’s performances was also, to my eyes, reflected in the development of Sayer’s Polixenes. Even after the sixteen-year gap, Polixenes was hardly an old man, and his cheeky disguise and enjoyment of the dancing at the sheep-shearing showed a man who, out of Leontes’s presence, could be as lairy as his friend. Yet when he revealed himself to Florizel (Sam Woolf, the other new cast member), his rage at being betrayed by his son was uncontainable. He threw Florizel to the ground and he pulled Eleanor McLoughlin’s Perdita to him, pulling her head back, hurting her, and grabbing her crotch on ‘if ever henceforth thou / These rural latches to his entrance open’. While a pale reflection of Leontes’s crimes, the connection was all too plain, as these entitled men acted out in violence and sexual assault when their authority was challenged.
Of course, one of the big changes in the world since I last saw the production has been the election of a US president who think it’s okay to ‘grab [women] by the pussy’. The responses of the play’s women to the violence embodied in their rulers was instructive, their resistance dignified, unyielding, and un-ignorable. McLoughlin and Grace Andrews’s work as Hermione’s ladies-in-waiting was a joy to watch, their pursed lips and polite brushings-off of Mamillius’s aggression towards them often funny, but always insistent on articulating their displeasure at his treatment of them. Joy Richardson’s Paulina, too, drew some of the biggest laughs of the first half with her pointed staring down of the (much larger) male attendants who tried to remove her from Leontes’s presence. Paulina’s presence was absolute; she arrived and left when she chose, she spoke her mind, she moved at a measured, self-determined pace in a world otherwise governed by Leontes’s breakneck speed.
The stillest of the women, though, was Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione, quite clearly the glue that held this family together. Her physical reactions to her son and husband were often identical; two petulant, hyperactive children who she soothed, cradled and calmed. But while those roles might sound almost passive, in Radmall-Quirke’s hands they were dynamic and transformative. Hermione was no pushover, and regularly stood up to both boys, making clear the limits of her tolerance. Radmall-Quirke’s tour de force was still her podium speech in her own defence: an uncompromising, deeply felt and precise articulation of her position, captured with a low-angle camera and projected in close-up onto the large white crate that stood upstage. Hermione’s listing of the ways in which she was unhappy was devastating, a comprehensive indictment of Leontes’s destructiveness. Yet her stillness and restraint (bursting through to sobs as Leontes interrupted her defence and took her head in his hands at the podium) contrasted sharply and favourably with the uncontrollable, violence passions of the men in her life.
The dynamic between Hermione, Leontes and Mamillius drove the first half of the production, three complex performances that gave each full space to articulate and define their experience while not compromising on the abhorrence of Leontes’s actions. Leontes repeatedly slipped into a green-lit psychic space, particularly at the start of the production as his extravagantly friendly, physical manhandling of friend, wife and son into a joyless family portrait gave way to his manoeuvring of the mannequin- like bodies of Hermione and Polixenes into sexual positions, projecting his sexual fantasies of both onto their bodies. But that opening sequence also established a world in which Leontes asserted his right and power to manipulate those closest to him. It is testament to James’s skill as an actor that he could offer such a thorough explanation of Leontes’s rationale and self-justification without in the least exculpating him. The conclusion of the trial scene, in which Hermione cradled the sobbing Leontes after the first half of the prophecy proved her innocence and Leontes cried out in sorrow and confusion, was an unbearable and natural climax for two people who still desperately wanted everything to be okay, but as Leontes heard the confusing final lines of the prophecy (and clearly responded ‘But my son is still alive’, establishing the reason for the lack of belief that undermined everything else the oracle had spoken) and tore the prophecy to shreds, that hope was torn from everyone.
The central story of the first half was supported by an ensemble responding urgently and with horror to events, most obviously during the confrontation between Leontes and Hermione where his beliefs were first made public. As Leontes circled the stage, and Hermione shifted between running from and moving towards him, the rest of the ensemble moved organically, all pursuing their own relationship to king and queen and creating a whirling, unpredictable energy on the stage that culminated in the shocking moment of Leontes kicking Hermione in her pregnant belly. A new (I think) moment had Hermione wipe the blood she found between her thighs onto Mamillius’s face, to the child’s shock; her preternatural calm at a moment of danger almost a detachment from events that had gone beyond what she could comprehend.
The other figure who emerged strongly from the opening half was Peter Moreton’s Antigonus in an unusually dignified and even heroic reading of the role which didn’t feel the need to render him cowardly in order to bolster Paulina’s significance. Quietly spoken, bespectacled and initially reticent, Antigonus stood up when it mattered, both attempting to hurry Perdita offstage when Leontes appeared momentarily to relent, and then squaring up to his king fully in order to offer to pawn his own blood for the child. He carried Perdita softly to Bohemia and sacrificed himself, screaming and waving to draw the bear’s attention. His almost instant reappearance (now bearded) as the Old Shepherd offered a pleasingly cyclical air to the end of the first half, as the same actor picked up the swaddled baby and took her under his care once more. The importance of this moment – with ‘You met with things dying, I with things newborn’ moved to be the closing line of the scene – was underscored by its repetition at the start of the second half, and made the thematic transition into Bohemia seamless.
Bohemia had undergone extensive changes since the original run, many of which featured Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus and Sam McArdle’s Young Shepherd, whose first scene together didn’t make it into the performances I saw in Sceaux. The Young Shepherd’s haplessness was made a feature, he entering listening to headphones and then having his music interrupted by a pre-recorded message from himself, in which he reminded himself of the goods he was meant to be getting for the sheep-shearing (and rewarded himself with a concealed bar of Dairy Milk). Autolycus made the most of an English-speaking audience to get some nice back-and-forth going with individual audience members, and he used the Clown’s headphones to control his mood, getting him screaming about foreigners to distract him and then soothing him by placing the music back over his ears.
Autolycus riling up the Young Shepherd about ‘strangers’ was the earliest indicator of some post-Brexit shifts in tone in the Bohemia scenes, McArdle practically foaming at the mouth at the thought of foreigners interrupting their rural life. But it was much later in the half, as Autolycus vetted the Shepherds as they travelled to Sicilia, where the production became as angry as I’ve ever seen a Cheek by Jowl production. With Bohemia coded as Irish and Sicilia as English, Autolycus’s send-up of what a hard land border might look like was initially hysterical, the Shepherds producing endless documents from their pockets while Autolycus made his way through their bags, the bureaucratic detail amusing in its closeness to reality. But when the Young Shepherd was unable to produce one final document, Autolycus took him upstage and, in a deeply upsetting scene, kicked the shit out of him, stomping heavily on him once he was down, and finally pushing the bloodied young man back to his father. The unspoken ‘Welcome to England’ was like a bucket of cold water on the performance, killing the comedy of the Bohemia scenes stone-dead just in time to return to Sicilia. The tonal incongruity, for me, is where the anger came through in an almost non-diegetic sense, momentarily throwing the world of The Winter’s Tale aside and forcing the audience to look at a moment of parochial cruelty.
The other changes to the Bohemia scenes were subtler, but effective. The importance placed on the Shepherd’s dead wife was the same, but whereas in earlier performances the Shepherd broke down in tears at this point, here Moreton’s performance was calmer, wiser, more accepting of the changes in life that had taken his wife from him, and his speech about her former role in the sheep-shearing was sober and celebratory, the rest of the Bohemians standing with him to remember her (as an aside, I loved watching Joseph Black during these scenes, whose shy, awkward Bohemian sat alone at first, and was lovingly patronised by the more socially able revellers). Perdita and the Young Shepherd still tussled and fought like real siblings, but her anger at the interruptions and condescension of the disguised Polixenes was more restrained, she honouring her mother’s memory by fulfilling her role properly, stepping back from her shouts (with a brief warning from her father) and gifting flowers to Polixenes and Camillo in reparation and welcome. The new live music (under the supervision of Guy Hughes) went even further to creating a more elegiac tone for Bohemia.
All of this was undone, of course, by Autolycus. The ‘Time to Talk’ scene, riffing off Jeremy Kyle-type talk shows, had also developed, making much clearer that this rewriting of the Mopsa/Dorcas feud was designed to open up family secrets in a way that would let the Clown reveal to Perdita that she was adopted, and the slightly more measured tone allowed her space and time to react to this news as well as to give the Shepherds time for a more comic fight, stopped by Autolycus leading his square dance. But the through-line worked better here, as Perdita’s lingering with Florizel seemed to follow more directly on from that revelation, their careless passion as they tore off clothes also a momentary rejection of their respective sets of parents. Woolf was fascinating as Florizel; even before his suited appearance in Sicilia, dressed up to look respectable, he seemed to me to be a Prince William type, all polite charm and slight awkwardness, yet respectful to the traditions he was entering into. He was besotted with Perdita and understandably frustrated by the stranger telling him to inform his father, politely dismissive until Polixenes revealed himself. Florizel and Perdita are difficult roles, but by stressing their connection to one another and their shared distancing from their parents, McLoughlin and Woolf raised the stakes for the two and made them perfect prey for Carr’s Camillo. In keeping with the general tonal developments in Bohemia, this Camillo was older, calmer and quieter than his predecessor in the role, and his calm explanation to the audience of his plan to betray the pair was perhaps the first time I’ve understood the significance of this betrayal, and the emotional weight of his undemonstrative but absolute need to return to Leontes. It’s a shame, really, that the production didn’t have more opportunity to stress this reunion, given the more significant reconciliations.
On the return to Sicilia, Leontes and his attendants were revealed sitting on a bench together, the world of this court now beaten down, stripped of the youthful energy that had motivated it sixteen years earlier; the loudest and most confident voice was Paulina’s, the others looking to her for surety and instruction. In a lovely bit of symmetry with the build towards the first half’s conclusion, where the walls of the white crate had fallen to reveal Mamillius’s body, here one wall fell to reveal Perdita and Florizel, who would similarly redefine Sicilia in the wake of their arrival. Perdita offered an pre-emptive echo of Hermione in her statuesque appearance as Leontes and the courtiers stood and stared at her, approaching her in awe as they recognised her, and that sense of awe was captured brilliantly by Andrews, Black and Hughes as they narrated the revelation of Perdita in glad, awestruck tones as the rest of the ensemble played it out in dumbshow.
And so, finally, the production moved into its endgame, with Hermione revealed seated downstage, allowing the facial reactions of the ensemble (kept behind a row of boxes, adding weight to Hermione’s isolation and separation) to be fully visible. In three different performances I’ve seen three different versions of the awakening; here, Hughes played music on a small toy piano that had earlier entranced Mamillius. What I loved about the final images is that Radmall-Quirke only partially broke her statue-like performance. She stood, tall and unmovable, downstage, letting Leontes and Perdita come to her on their knees, and Leontes embraced her from his kneeling position while she stood. In this older, stricken Leontes, the childlike resonance of his kneeling, clinging to Hermione’s skirts, showed that he hadn’t simply ‘learned from his mistakes’, but that he was still fundamentally the same scared little boy with the desperate need to be loved, only now with the violence purged from his system.
As the rest of the ensemble moved to join in the group adulation of Hermione, and Mamillius passed around the stage to lay his hands on his father’s head before being led away by Time, the mood seemed to me to evoke forgiveness more than the haunted regret I got from the earliest performances. While Leontes still stared up into the space that Mamillius had occupied, clearly remembering, the generosity – the grace – of Mamillius’s softly placed hand seemed to extend to Leontes the possibility of forgiveness. What I think the production left open is whether or not Leontes would be able to accept that grace; in James’s performance, the greatest punishment that could be inflicted on Leontes was that he inflicted on himself, and his loneliness even at the centre of a closely gathered group allowed for the perfect conflation of mercy and anguish.