January 29, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (Cheek by Jowl) @ Les Gemeaux

I was planning deliberately not to blog about Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale. Not only did I see the first two previews, at a point when (even by Cheek by Jowl’s fluid standards) the show was still developing, but I also spent a few days in rehearsals with the company in December as part of the research for the book I’m writing. As a result, I feel rather too close to this one to be reviewing it, and my plan was to reserve my thoughts for the book, where this production will feature (in my current plan) as a major case study chapter.

But the blog is looking quite empty for January, not least because I saw this production twice and have spent much of the last month thinking about it (as well as watching Cheek by Jowl archive recordings), and it seems a waste not to make a few comments about what was, for me, a revelatory Winter’s Tale, very much in the spirit of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s recent French and Russian work. With the provisos, then, that my experience with this production was in rehearsals and previews, a few thoughts on some of this production’s most interesting choices:

This Winter’s Tale foregrounded Leontes’ experience; in fact, apart from for the very brief Cleomenes and Dion scene, Orlando James’s Leontes didn’t leave the stage until after Mamillius and Hermione’s deaths. He hovered upstage being changed into pyjamas while Joy Richardson’s Paulina took Perdita from Grace Andrews’ Emilia; he loitered, watching jealousy, as Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione asked Mamillius to read to her. The angles of looking and surveillance reminded me of the Russian ensemble’s recent Measure for Measure, but in this play those lines of sight were corrupt from the start. This Leontes was youthful and energetic; he was also unpredictable and tempestuous. In the court scenes, grooms had to race to work out whether to respond with laughter or fear to his outbursts, creating an unnerving and dynamic thrust to the crescendo of his jealousy.

Crucially, the production did not set up any external justification for Leontes’ jealousy; many productions choose to show Hermione and Edward Sayer’s Polixenes touching hands or embracing in ways that invite the audience to identify with Leontes. Instead, in a thrilling movement sequence (marked through subtle shifts in light), Polixenes and Hermione fell perfectly still and Leontes manipulated them into the positions he described, creating small smiles on their faces and placing Hermione’s hand on Polixenes’ crotch. As his rant developed, he maneuvered them into more explicit sexual positions, and thrust his own crotch into Polixenes’ back in order to begin a sexual recreation. This simple movement made clear that Leontes’ fixation is with the bodies of both wife and friend, his tactile and obsessive manipulation of the bodies acting out fantasies of control.

The casting of an adult (Tom Cawte) as Mamillius furthered these dynamics of control by allowing Mamillius to be an actual, fully-fledged character rather than a human prop pushed around by an actor-babysitter. The two-way, physical relationship between Mamillius and Leontes established a proximity of affection between them, and wonderfully rendered Mamillius quite spoiled; his thrashing tantrum when his exhausted mother needed a break from him was a comic moment that also spoke to the tensions within this ‘perfect’ family unit. The company set up a three-way set of already-present conflicts that exploded under the full force of Leontes’ jealousy.

The other set of particularly key innovations concerned Bohemia, here a rural Ireland at least in part evocative of Donnellan’s self-penned play Lady Betty (available in the Cheek by Jowl archive). The deep emotional investment in setting here created a richly textured Bohemia with a coherent, persuasive throughline. Eleanor McLoughlin’s Perdita and Sam McArdle’s Young Shepherd were a feuding and bad-tempered brother and sister, pinching and pulling each other’s hair when their father wasn’t looking. Peter Moreton’s Old Shepherd was a gruff, hospitable man, unafraid to pull his adult children up by their ears and manage his household, but also (through Paddy Cunneen’s lilting ballads) creating the aural texture of pastoral ritual. Brilliantly, the production picked up on the Old Shepherd’s description of his wife’s role in the sheep-shearing while alive, and imagined that she had only died within the last year (hence Perdita taking on the role of Queen for the first time). The dynamics of the two children trying to prevent their father pouring out his soul; of the assorted locals shouting out their own memories of the wife; and of the deep, affectionate but barely-explicated love that bound this inarticulate family together were extraordinary, and rendered the rather snobbish Polixenes and Camillo (Abubakar Salim) even more out of place. McLoughlin’s wonderfully original Perdita shouted down the snickering visitors who refused to respect the ritual that reminded the family of their lost wife and mother.

Yet Bohemia, despite its on-stage rain and bargain-basement fairy lights (Ormerod’s set was a simple white box at the heart of a white space, that opened up for key scenes and became a makeshift hut for Bohemia), was not entirely serious. Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus (his scenes cut heavily when I saw it) acted as Master of Ceremonies for a number of set pieces including a storming barn dance, a folk song, a hilarious airline security handling of the Shepherds and, most fascinatingly, a Jeremy Kyle-style talk show that erupted out of Mopsa and Dorcas’s feud, filmed on live camera. It’d be easy to talk about the in-jokes and chaos of this sequence, but its real value for the production was in putting the Bohemia family under the close zoom of the camera (very similar to the company’s approach in Ubu Roi). By imagining the Shepherd’s reaction to his son impregnating Mopsa, and by having Perdita judge her brother only to be denounced as a changeling in return, the scene set up the messy secrets that underpin some of the more complex plot twists of the play. This was a family who had gained and lost in equal measure, and the close bonds that kept them together were driven by the full range of emotions available to a true family.

Donnellan’s production was about loss, and by bringing out the loss of an unseen character in Bohemia, the production united its two halves emotionally. It then became fascinating to see how characters dealt with and handled that loss; from Paulina’s subtle reactions to mentions of Antigonus, to Perdita’s chemistry with Chris Gordon’s Florizel (another character often without personality, here a bundle of disruptive energy trying to fit into his girlfriend’s family celebrations), to the slow, careful movements of Leontes in his older age. The reappearance of an isolated and ghostly Mamillius at the production’s end (as in Cheek by Jowl’s production with the Maly Theatre two decades earlier) was contrasted with the closing image of a group of people bound together on the floor, all touching in a moment of reunion. I was struck by the range of conflicting emotions the image left in me, from a tender warmth to a desperate hopelessness; if nothing else, the sense that grief has no easy ending was a mature and complex way to close.

These are only a few initial thoughts, and I’m enjoying unpacking (in a chapter that is going to be about ten times the length of this review) a lot of the individual choices. The cast was uniformly phenomenal, bringing life to individual characters (the awestruck wonder of Joseph Black’s Cleomenes and Guy Hughes’s Dion rendered their short scene a major contribution to the production’s affect, rather than being exposition), turning the court into a constantly moving web of hierarchies and reactions (Cleomenes and Leontes almost getting into a fight at one point in rage over Leontes’ accusations against Hermione, while the other courtiers leaped to part them) and individual set pieces. While I’m reluctant to pick out individual performances, the close camera on the podium for the trial scene allowed Radmall-Quirke to construct a show-stopping and emotionally devastating self-defence, every word and gesture carefully chosen to perform Hermione’s unimpeachable integrity and refusal to be silenced. This was a production of extraordinary nuance, and one that will no doubt continue to grow ahead of its first UK performances in 2017.

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