October 28, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
The Winter’s Tale (The Show Must Go Online) @ Zoom
As The Show Must Go Online moves into its final four shows in its ambitious project to stage all of the plays from the First Folio as live Zoom readings, the inventiveness of this project continues undiminished. From a screen packed out with footage of farmyard animals interspersed with animals to represent the sheep-shearing, to the use of reverb effects and modulation to show the Oracle possessing a hapless Lord to deliver its message, to the surprisingly intricate choreography that allowed characters to pick one another’s pockets despite being in entirely different locations, their version of The Winter’s Tale attempted to make the most of the medium of Zoom to create a sense of playfulness and wonder.
The Show Must Go Online rehearses its weekly readings in a couple of days, and presents a largely uncut text with relatively full Zoom staging, making extensive use of costumes and backgrounds along with a range of interpolated footage. Some of the conventions of the format were less successful than others – the stock footage scene introductions announcing a specific setting for each scene were reminiscent of eighteenth-century practice and tried to impose a fixity of location on something that, in the DIY environments of the scenes themselves, was much more fluid in action; I preferred, for instance, the sight of bedrooms and studies to the attempt to create a car setting for Cleomenes and Dion’s return from the Oracle. And while the attempts to create interaction between characters were often compelling, there is no power on earth that will make two people kissing their cameras look like anything other than two people kissing their cameras. But other affordances of Zoom emerged that emphasised some of The Winter’s Tale‘s particular challenges.
This came across most powerfully in Colin Hurley’s Leontes, where the fact everyone was speaking directly into their screens made for a strikingly intense version of his jealousy. The collapsing of space in Zoom can sometimes be disorienting, especially for getting a sense of who is involved in a private conversation within a scene and who can hear whom, but as Leontes slipped into his jealous ramblings, the presence of Hurley in front of his computer took on a particularly voyeuristic feel. While Hermione (Hannah Young) and Polixenes (Andrew Pawarroo) reclined at opposite ends of a sofa, Leontes stared into his community as if angrily watching porn, suddenly clearly a man in front of a computer, isolated, even implying a kind of incel irrational anger at seeing the happiness of others. Shifting in and out of the ‘real’ space of the scene – where he exchanged pool cues and paper planes with Mamillius – and the image of the actor staring into his computer at people, commenting proprietorially on people unaware of his scrutiny, was an insightful indictment of the kinds of toxic masculinity that manifest online.
The production invested heavily in ideas of the supernatural and uncanny. Hermione’s (Hannah Young) statue was a case in point, marked over with pencil lines to show cracks in the marble, and eerily unfurling her fingers as Paulina (Honey Gabriel) summoned her to life. The sense that Hermione had actually died was strengthened by her appearance earlier to Antigonus (Danann McAleer), credited on the Zoom captions as ‘HERMIONE’S GHOST’, and speaking with reverb in ways that mirrored the work done by Kristin Duffy’s Lord during the revelation of the Oracle, during which a canister was opened and Duffy was possessed by the voice of the Oracle, speaking the prophecy through a voice filter while jerking supernaturally. Time (Duffy again) used similar vocal effects, and the recurring sense was of a world where the borders between natural and supernatural were more than usually fluid.
The digital space of the Zoom screen created some fascinating effects of juxtaposition and prominence. The production took the unusual choice to have Paulina ‘onstage’ in 1.2, giving this important figure a visual presence long before she first spoke when visiting the Jailer; similarly, having the Jailer (Michael P. McDonald) looming in the top-left corner of the screen in near darkness during the arrest of Hermione made for an ominous indication of the incarceration awaiting the queen. On the other hand, the sight of Mamillius (an exuberant 12-year-old Eva Yacobi) bouncing around a room with a pool table and drum kit, dancing and entertaining himself while the adults were speaking in 1.2, opened up the space of the scene in ways that are difficult to replicate on stage, creating a contained world for the child became emblematic of something innocent. During the arrest scene, Mamillius ended up central on the screen, being contested over even as the faces of the invading Leontes and Lords filled up the screen around him.
The other area in which Zoom worked effectively was in scenes of confrontation. When Leontes threatened Camillo (Elizabeth Dennehy) as part of ordering him to kill Polixenes, or when Antigonus and a Lord challenged Leontes’ plan to kill Perdita, the juxtaposition of images of people shouting at their screens created an effectively combative framework for the action. The effect of this on The Winter’s Tale – a play where Leontes invades space so thoroughly – was striking, as however much Leontes raised his voice, he was still confined to his frame. As such, contestation felt more than usually efficacious here, with characters like Antigonus seeming able to mount effective resistance without being physically cowed by Leontes; the downside of this, of course, is that Leontes was himself untouchable in his rage.
Elsewhere, the production worked hard to create intimacy, with the wonderful Gabriel doing particularly sensitive work at the prison as she lowered her voice to speak to the Jailer, and then shared joyful news with Emilia (Luke Farrugia); and later in the intimate scenes between Florizel (Clive Keene) and Perdita (Giulia Rose), as they shared romantic moments even while surrounded by others on the screen. These more intimate moments often involved more close-up interaction with the screen, and it was interesting in this light to see the pickpocketing scene reframed as one of intimacy. Autolycus (Stephen Leask) staged his agony in front of a clothes horse filled with his goods, and as he asked the Clown (Will Gillham) to help him up, Leask held a pair of jeans in front of his face and lifted a wallet from its pocket, neatly allowing the spaces to blur into one another at a moment of invasive proximity.
The Bohemia scenes saw the cast let loose with a wild variety of costumes and, hilariously, a whole series of guest accounts appearing on screen with footage of goats, ducks and other farmyard animals, creating a busy scenario for the party (and a more benign counterpoint to the image of the Bear that attacked Antigonus). Autolycus’s music drove this scene, with the cast dancing joyfully in their own windows and creating something of a party atmosphere. The sheep-shearing felt appropriately chaotic, with the ludicrously disguised characters mingling with similarly bizarrely dressed shepherds, and created an effective contrast with the more sober Sicilia scenes.
One of the interesting elements of the Show Must Go Online project is that, in its commitment to a reading of a relatively full text, its interpretive innovation comes in how it illustrates the text, rather than how it changes or adapts; this was, for instance, the first Winter’s Tale I’ve seen in some time that has ended with Leontes’ last line and an Exeunt, rather than bringing Mamillius back on or in some other way complicating the ending. As such, this was a rare Winter’s Tale to buy into the act of grace at the end of the play, to accept the miracle of Hermione’s resurrection and effect a reconciliation that promised some kind of happiness and forgiveness for the family at the play’s heart. In some ways, this acceptance of a miracle from nothing might mimic the magic of the Show Must Go Online‘s project to create theatre from the rawest of materials at a time when theatre can seem impossible, and it’s a fitting note of hope for a project that has done so much to create hope.