Winter's Tale

June 30, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Ever since I was blown away by the Globe’s touring production of The Winter’s Tale a decade ago, I’ve been longing to see the play in the main Globe space. For better or worse, the theatre is a natural enabler of laughter; so how does the final awakening of faith, the injunction not to stir, play out?

Beautifully, as it turned out. Priyanga Burford stood upstage as Hermione, revealed from underneath an enormous black sheet descending from the heavens. There was a great deal of laughter as Sirine Saba’s Paulina drew people away from the wet paint and others commented on her life likeness, but Paulina carefully managed the atmosphere, and when she stepped forward to ask everyone in the audience to awake their faith, the silence was profound. As Hermione came to with a start, mine weren’t the only eyes in the audience shining with tears.

Blanche McIntyre’s production was hugely confident throughout in the abilities of its cast to manage the play. The stage was slightly extended, with a small centre stage platform protruding which served for many of the soliloquies and set piece speeches, and a golden lattice frame covered the tiring house and roof, to little obvious effect but at least not getting in the actors’ way. Far more so than for Hamlet, the actors used the full range and downstage areas of the stage, yet without sacrificing the subtlety of the central performances.

The first half was anchored by Will Keen as a truly excellent Leontes. Keen initially cut a quiet figure, standing behind Hermione and gesturing to her to take over in persuading Oliver Ryan’s Polixenes to stay. But as he was won, Leontes began his descent. Keen began by nervously biting at his thumb, then started gently, but unceasingly, shaking. His words came out in a rush of thoughts tumbling over one another, he holding on to the central thought – Hermione with Polixenes – with his outstretched hand. He rubbed and hit his head, then would sit at the side of the stage among the audience, working his forehead as if trying to manually rid himself of the mental images. Wonderfully, though, his anguish was kept restrained, Leontes showing enormous power as he wrestled to stay still and resist his own impulses; where other actors might have gone for histrionics, Keen consistently implied that there were greater dangers just out of sight, thus maintaining the onstage fear of what he might do.

Leontes’ implied ferocity was balanced against Paulina demonstrable power. Saba’s Paulina began at a high level of audacious independence and only became more determined. Her fast ripostes to Leontes were balanced by sincere pleas; she refused to defer but tried to win him over to reason through sheer force of argument. As well as offering some welcome relief in her amusing irreverence, she gave Leontes an obvious point of resistance to position himself against; when she finally left him to let her words work, he looked down at the baby that had been left on the floor, and raised his foot to stamp on it, the extreme act an attempt to reassert his own control.

At the centre of the tussle was Hermione – dignified and warm, and besotted with Mamillius, played with a cheeky energy by Rose Wardlaw, one of the liveliest actors in the ensemble. Hermione’s gentle treatment of her restless son, the anxious Polixenes and her terrified waiting women, all contrasted with the forceful and uncompromising behaviours of Paulina and Leontes. Yet when Hermione stepped forward for the trial, she showed no quarter; at extreme downstage, and addressing the whole auditorium, her scathing riposte to Leontes about her ‘blessings’ carried with it a searing scorn worthy of a whispered ‘Yas Queen’.

The conclusion of the trial involved Leontes quietly reading the oracle and shooing Hermione away from him while he shook. He then walked to the downstage platform and tore the oracle into pieces which he scattered into the pit. The open air helped, I think, emphasise the significance of Apollo here, with both Leontes’ defiance and later contrition offered to the open air while a priestess held a sword aloft. Leontes’ collapse on hearing of Hermione’s death was followed by a blisteringly delivered denouncement by Paulina, who finally led the broken man offstage.

The transition to Bohemia was the production’s most awkward moment. Howard Ward sold Antigonus’ description of Hermione’s ghostly appearance, evoking the unnatural terror of the uncanny vision, but the bear was a letdown after a thunderous buildup from the band – a picture of a bear unravelled over the central entrance and, as Antigonus threw himself down the central maw, part of the lattice crashed to the floor rather unimpressively behind him. But the space was immediately enlivened by Annette Badland and Jordan Metcalfe’s entrance as the Shepherds. Thrilled to find themselves suddenly rich, they ran around the stage high-fiving the audience, before belatedly realising they should keep it secret.

Bohemia worked well in the second half, largely because the company kept it brief and simple, relying on the earned charisma of the cast rather than unnecessary gags. The Shepherd in particular won the audience over early with her funky dance moves while the other Bohemian revellers filled up the central entrance, while the Clown’s total lack of guile rendered him particularly winsome. Where Sicilia had been characterised by variations on classical Mediterranean, Bohemia was closer to contemporary Glastonbury; when the Shepherds emerged as ‘gentlemen born’ for their final appearance dressed in elaborate and gorgeous Elizabethan regalia, the applause and cheering lasted long.

The comedy of Bohemia was enabled by Becci Gemmell’s interestingly genderfluid Autolycus. While he was only spoken of with male pronouns, he clearly presented as female at times, including when flirting with the Clown, planting a huge smacker on the smitten Clown’s face after robbing him, and when swapping clothes with Luke MacGregor’s Florizel (who politely acknowledged a wolf whistle when stripped down to his boxers). Autolycus was here, more than ever, defined by shifting identity and his ability to be whatever his gulls most wanted to see. Autolycus bantered gently with the audience and turned up as the pedlar atop a huge cart wheeled through the audience, but never outstayed his welcome, and the fast pace for once made sense of his representation of the Shepherds.

Yet while there was much to laugh at in Bohemia, the stakes were clear. Ryan came into his own as Polixenes in the second half, responding with comedic chagrin to Florizel’s continual references to his age. When it came to his revelation, though, he thundered, tearing off his disguise and screaming at his son – beautifully, Florizel was too terrified to turn round, but his face showed his petrification.

The return to Sicilia all built to the statue scene, and this production did more than many Winter’s Tales to offer resolution. While Leontes hardly merits forgiveness, Keen’s total humbling of himself to Paulina, his open embrace of the Bohemian arrivals, and his awe before the statue went as far as possible to communicating the length and depth of his despair; and the final meeting of the tearful Hermione and her daughter (Norah Lopez-Holden) was drawn out to emphasise the length of time it had taken. Onstage, I was struck to see Wardlaw’s Dion openly in tears, reflecting many in the audience.

In a lovely closing moment, Paulina was left alone onstage as the company exited to hear more about what had happened. She turned, raised her arms to the heavens, and clicked her fingers, once more taking ownership of the space as the company returned, moving in time to the jig she initiated. A lovely grace note to close a production full of grace.

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