June 17, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (The Bridge Project) @ The Old Vic

Writing about web page http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whatson.php?id=47

The Bridge Project is a major new collaboration between London’s Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bringing together the best of English and American talent, the Project will be offering three seasons of Shakespeare and Chekov, with plays paired thematically. For this opening season, directed by Sam Mendes, The Winter’s Tale was paired with The Cherry Orchard, two plays exploring love and loss and linked at the start of each by a projected caption from Richard II: “O call back yesterday, bid time return”.

Even when seen alone, The Winter’s Tale betrayed the influence of a company devoted as equally to Chekov as to Shakespeare, for better and for worse. This was an excellently performed production, the cast bringing out often-hidden subtleties in the text and finding layers of complexity in the characters. More negatively, though, this close focus resulted in the production often being static, even sedentary; even the sheep-shearing festival saw the bulk of the revellers sit for most of the scene, while a circle of chairs was laid out in the final scene for the court to sit and admire Hermione’s statue. The staging was therefore often visually quite dull, a problem for those of us in the gods less able to appreciate the more subtle work being done.

However, the quiet simplicity of the staging was often to the production’s benefit. The opening scene (Camillo and Archidamus’ opening conversation was cut) took place in Mamillius’ bedroom; Leontes sat on the child’s bed, Hermione on the floor and Polixenes perched on a chair nearby. This intimate, domestic opening emphasised the bonds between the three as private rather than public, serving to both give Leontes some cause for his initial suspicion and accentuate the tragedy of what his jealousy had destroyed. Hermione and Polixenes lounged together on a cushion on the floor after the latter had been persuaded to stay, toying with each other’s hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. Josh Hamilton’s Polixenes was some years younger than Simon Russell Beale’s Leontes, and Leontes was thus – at least, at first – touchingly sympathetic in his insecurity, standing awkwardly apart from the younger pair and reminiscing about his early days with Hermione in a bid for attention.

I sincerely disliked Rebecca Hall’s Hermione, both in character and in performance. This Hermione was oblivious to her husband’s lack of confidence, and the way she turned pointedly back to Polixenes, gazing into his eyes as she spoke of the second time she had spoken well, seemed an almost deliberate attempt to tease her husband. She came across as slightly spoiled, happy to be the centre of attention and fawned over by her husband’s friend. Coupled with her apparent disregard for Leontes’ own feelings, the performance left us in a troubling position; she was difficult to like, but at the same time her suffering at Leontes’ hands was unconscionable. Her remark of "I never hoped to see you sorry; now I trust I shall" came out as an attempt to provoke guilt, and even when sat in court her anger manifested itself partly as petulance. While it was interesting to see a less-than-saintly Hermione, an audience still needs something to engage with. Here, it was Leontes who had most of our sympathy, his suffering and jealousy an entirely human reaction to his personal feelings of abandonment and loneliness.

Beale’s performance was a masterclass in acting, always believable and sympathetic even when descending into the furthest reaches of his jealousy. Whether plucking Morven Christie’s Mamillius away from Polixenes’ grasp or twitching nervously at one end of the trial table, this was a man always at conflict with himself. One of the strongest moments came as Sinead Cusack’s Paulina brought in the baby Perdita for him to hold. Given the baby, Leontes was simultaneously drawn to it and repulsed by it, holding it tenderly while weeping at his own hatred for it. In the act of holding it, his lines were painfully immediate: "But be it; let it live" offered hope for a moment as father embraced daughter, but the following "It shall not neither" saw him make his final decision (2.3.156-7).

The mania of Leontes reached its apotheosis in the court scene, conducted interestingly at a single table, with Leontes and Hermione at either end and an extremely uncomfortable judge in the middle, stammering and nervous at the task he was being asked to perform. I found the oracle extremely problematic: here, a wooden box was opened and a quill removed, which magically stood itself upright and began scrawling its judgment on a piece of parchment. Aside from the inescapable Harry Potter associations, this open display of magic early in the play served to make Leontes’ defiance particularly incomprehensible – why would you not believe the magic pen?! – and also undermined somewhat Paulina’s later request to "awake your faith" (5.3.95). In a world where magic had already been proven to exist on so tangible a level, belief in these arts was no longer an issue.

So to Bohemia, where a coloured cyclorama presented a depth that opened out the second half of the play from the closed rooms of Leontes’ court. Dakin Matthews’ Antigonus was victim of a genuinely scary bear, lifesize and realistic, that padded in on all fours in dim silhouette, hiding in the shadows. Squatting behind the spotlit Antigonus, the bear drew some laughs as it appeared to be patiently waiting for him to finish his speech, but as it rose up and roared behind him, the stage was immediately blacked out, leaving a searing image in the mind’s eye. Bohemia itself was reimagined as late 19th century America, in literal contrast to the Victorian English court of Sicilia. This allowed the Anglo-American cast to be neatly divided between the two physical locations, making a simple and clear distinction between the two cultures which was particularly effective in the case of Morven Christie’s Perdita, who having grown up in Bohemia naturally adopted an American accent.

Unfortunately, the Bohemia scenes failed to work as effectively as those in Sicilia. The relatively inert staging that had brought out the nuances in earlier scenes here failed to conjure an appropriately festive atmosphere for what appeared to be a Thanksgiving celebration, making the long sheep-shearing scene feel that much longer. Bohemia was enlivened, however, by Ethan Hawke’s Autolycus, a travelling troubadour with acoustic guitar who first appeared in silhouette, striding over a hill in an instantly iconic pose. While Hawke failed to do anything truly innovative with the part, he infused the second act with energy and wry humour, and occasional belly laughs. His initial meeting with Tobias Segel’s Young Shepherd involved Autolycus bringing out a huge prop cross onto which he hung himself in a entertainingly overblown scheme for sympathy. Ballads and trinkets hung from the lining of his long cloak, and his impersonation of a foppish courtier was particularly hilarious, lounging in a chair and describing the tortures lined up for the Shepherds with relish.

Christie’s Perdita and Michael Braun’s Florizel were both solid if unexceptional, in what are often relatively thankless parts. Christie was strongest on her return to Sicilia, where she gazed with wide-eyed wonderment at her new found family. In a strong moment occasioned by the doubling of Perdita and Mamillius, Leontes reached out as if in a daze and touched her nose, recalling his earlier wiping of Mamillius’ smutched nose, and Paulina too took a keen interest in the young girl. The conclusion, though, while visually focussing itself around the statue of Hermione, placed at extreme downstage with the courtiers sat in a semi-circle behind it, prioritised Leontes again. The revived Hermione was very different to the Hermione of Act 1- stately, dignified and almost silent, a shadow of her former self. Instantly more likeable than the earlier version, it however served to make her something of a blank in these final moments: for all we saw of her, this could well have been an animated statue. It was in the impact on Leontes that the awakening became truly magical, he weeping to be reunited and pulling his newly-extended family together, gazing on the united pairs while himself standing slightly apart.

A final bid for complication saw the rest of the cast move upstage, leaving Leontes and Hermione alone. Leontes offered his hand, and the lights went down as Hermione looked at it, leaving their future in question. It was a complication which felt slightly forced after a relatively conventional awakening scene, and not particularly necessary: from what we had seen of this Hermione and Leontes, there’s was never going to be an easy journey back to happiness. This production, then, was a qualified success. Mendes’ direction was superb, and this closely-acted production was a welcome respite from high concepts and broad brushstrokes. However, its main strength was in Beale’s phenomenal central performance, which stood out in an otherwise competent, solid but ultimately conventional production.

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