August 19, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (Globe Touring) @ The Bodleian Library, Oxford

It’s a busy week of theatre for me. I’m seeing the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight (first glimpse for me of the ensemble who are also performing Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost), and I’m spending the bank holiday in London where I’ll catch the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens. For something a bit different, I’ll also be seeing Waves at the National Theatre, based on a Virginia Woolf book and directed by Katie Mitchell, who I’ve heard many interesting things about.

Yesterday I saw the Globe again, this time the touring company doing The Winter’s Tale. Given that my last experience of the Globe touring company was somewhat dampened, I was relieved to find Oxford bathed in glorious sunshine when I arrived. Ironically, the sun held for the entire first half of the play (ie the winter bit), before becoming clouded over and raining slightly during the second half, the summer sheep-shearing. The stubbornly inappropriate weather lent the production a fascinating and entirely undeliberate atmosphere, particularly in the second half where it emphasised the gloomier aspects and cast a slight pall over the scenes of pastoral celebration.

While perhaps not quite as evocative as the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, the quad of the Bodleian Library made for an impressive venue, the statue of Bodley himself glaring over the audience. However, the bell-ringing that started a block away just before the performance and continued without intermission for the entire performance was less welcome, jarring with the quieter and more severe moments. The production itself took place on a stage with a long, thin thrust. Most of the action took place on this catwalk, which interestingly inverted the perspective – while technically thrust, it often played more like traverse, with the end-on section of the audience quite far from the performers. At the back of the stage, a simple entrance with a circle pattern formed a backdrop.

The quad of the Bodleian Library.

In a play so much concerned with families, it was fascinating to see so many related actors on stage; Sasha Hails played Hermione, Mamillius was credited to both Siofra and Grainne Hails (the two youngsters appeared at different moments in this and other child-roles though their physical similarity meant that I didn’t realise this until they both appeared on stage together for the first time in the curtain call), while the tiny and adorable Cara Hails, credited as ‘Young Shepherdess’, appeared at start and end of acts with a placard announcing the time and place. The Globe has only been experimenting with touring in the spirit of Elizabethan players since last year, and this visual image of a family living and working on the road was a constant reminder of the practicalities of touring, reinforcing the scaled-down ethos.

The production was downsized in other ways, most notably the text. Clocking in at very slightly over two hours, including an interval, this was a vastly reduced Tale that edited the text considerably while cleverly retaining all the key activity. This was achieved primarily through the redistribution of minor parts and sequences – so, for example, the opening of 5.2 became a conversation between Autolycus and a single gentleman rather than a four-way discussion of events. Even the larger parts were doubled with smaller in order to accommodate a small cast: Leontes/Old Shepherd, Paulina/Young Shepherd, Hermione/Mopsa, Perdita/Emilia, Autolycus/Antigonus. A minimum lighting level was guaranteed by a couple of strings of bulbs over the stage, and all sound was created onstage with a lute and chime. The result of this pared-down approach was, of course, to focus attention on the actors.

John Dougall gave a measured performance as Leontes, casually dressed in shirt and waistcoat as were most of his court. His observations of Hermione and Polixenes began almost rationally, his curiosity gradually building into jealousy and anger; yet physically he remained fixed in place, thus allowing his rage to build internally rather than burning it off in outward violence. His queen and friend were seen, just offstage, talking quietly and often touching hands, heightening his rage. His anger and bitterness reached its crescendo in his introduction to his daughter, shouting openly at Paulina. By contrast to the effective build-up of his jealousy, though, its sudden disappearance felt awkward in the only moment in the fast play that felt rushed, the news of Mamillius and then Hermione’s death. The news, and Leontes’ repentance, was performed quickly, not allowing the impact of the offstage tragedies an opportunity to sink in before we found ourselves on the shores of Bohemia.

One of the most interesting casting decisions was Michael Benz playing Paulina as well as the Young Shepherd. Strong as the latter, he was particularly good in the female role, austere and feminine without resorting to campness. Cross-casting the part emphasised Paulina’s repeated references to her own sex: "The office/ Becomes a woman best", "would by combat make her good, so were I/ A man" etc., which in turn strengthened both Paulina’s daring in stepping outside of the expected bounds and at the same time her helplessness to defend Hermione as powerfully as she would wish. Although she and Antigonus, here a Geordie, showed no particular affection onstage, they stood together when confronting Leontes, and passed the babe gently between them.

A foreshadowing of the bear was seen in the young Mamillius, who crept up behind his mother wearing a pair of huge fake bear arms, which he put around her neck to frighten her. The family connection between the actors helped create a warm atmosphere for the domestic scene, with the heavily pregnant Hermione only annoyed for a few seconds at her son. Leontes’ entrance in this scene was countered angrily by Hermione, who strode off with dignity at the accusations. This dignity had faded by the trial scene itself, to be replaced by despair and, for a second, joy at the reprieve of the oracle. This Hermione was devoted to her family first and foremost, and the news of Mamillius’ death left her instantly unconscious on the stage.

The bear made another appearance in arm form as Antigonus walked towards the back of the stage. Leaning against the entrance, one of the huge arms snaked round and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him offstage in a moment of deliberate comedy. The Old Shepherd was interrupted in his ruminations shortly afterwards by a full-blown slapstick interlude as Antigonus entered screaming while a six foot black bear chased him around the audience and off again. The Shepherd’s reaction, a shrug to the audience, perfectly encapsulated the production’s approach to this scene – it’s a ridiculous death and, rather than try to make it serious, they embraced the obvious comic possibilities and made it entertaining. What we lacked in the tragedy of Antigonus was made up for by a conscious shift in tone, a demonstration that we had now entered Bohemia, the laid-back antithesis to the high drama of Sicily.

An excellent Fergal McElherron, having just been eaten, kicked off the second half of the play as Autolycus with a song that veered from the folky to the mock-rocky, complete with hand signals. His energy and humour drove much of this second half, the actor proving himself particularly adept at ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ style antics, grabbing purses easily from the Young Shepherd’s waist belt. As a comically Oirish pedlar, too, he excelled, with flowing fake beard and a tray of colourful items with which he entertained the on-stage children. Yet this comic role was also moving in places, the edited script leaving Autolycus on stage for most of the Bohemia scenes, meaning that we seemed to ‘see’ most of the action from his perspective. His ongoing opportunism, while funny, meant that his final meeting with the newly-rich shepherds became something of a revelation to him, his penance seeming genuine as he knelt before them. Of course, his penance couldn’t last and it wasn’t long before he was stealing grapes from a servant…..

This is becoming a long review, and I’m going to have plenty of opportunity to go into detail when I review it for Shakespeare Bulletin, so I’ll wrap up with one final observation. The statue scene worked extremely well, far more so than I’d ever expected it too. Stripped of stage trickery, Hermione simply walked on hidden behind some lords and, when revealed, stood still and silent, her robe flapping in the wind. Her pained expression, combined with her stillness, gave the scene a haunting feel that drew out the 17 years of Leontes’ pain, which the actor played up to. Her eventual movements, then, drew a shiver down my spine as the ‘statue’ awoke. Yet another reminder of how simplicity can often (if not always) be the best approach. Another excellent tour from the Globe, and I’m starting to get the impression that the techniques learned while training at the Globe are even more effective when taken out of that building.

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