April 26, 2021, by Peter Kirwan
The Winter’s Tale (RSC) @ BBC4
It’s become customary to see theatre shows performed in empty auditoria over the last year, but perhaps none quite so grandly empty as the RSC’s new Winter’s Tale. This is a production that has skipped over its own ‘gap of time’ – fully rehearsed but pulled just before it was due to open back in 2020 by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cast and crew have now reunited to put on a made-for-screen version – which now has the ignominious distinction of being the first of the RSC’s trudge through the canon under Gregory Doran’s leadership to be as-live but without an audience.
In converting the production to something designed for camera, stage director Erica Whyman and screen director Bridget Caldwell have made surprisingly few concessions to the medium. Leontes (Joseph Kloska) fires his asides directly down the camera lens, unblinking and intimidating as he addresses us with an uncomfortably intense focus. Autolycus (Anne Odeke) later has an incomprehensible aside to the camera about Shakespeare writing King Lear during a pandemic, a joke which had outstayed its welcome by August 2020. Other characters, however, deliver their asides to the empty seats, studiously ignoring the camera. And dynamically, the company still project as if to fill a packed house; while a typical compromise of the live broadcasts, I feel that if ever there were an opportunity to experiment more with dynamics and intimacy on that stage, this would have been that opportunity.
Whyman sets her production in the middle of the twentieth century, beginning in 1953 and skipping to the late ‘60s. While the setting is in many ways inconsequential (Sicilia is dressed in the same combination of tuxedos and evening wear that makes too many Winter’s Tales indistinguishable from one another), it affords the filmed version its most important innovation, which is the self-conscious remediation of public scenes within the production. The trial of Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) sees her placed atop a scaffold while an old-school television camera is pointed at her. In grainy black and white footage reminiscent of Elizabeth I’s coronation, Hermione is exposed before the world, forced to account for herself. Fascinatingly, Hermione focuses on addressing herself to those present, completely ignoring the camera; Leontes, however, positions himself between the camera and Hermione, often addressing his remarks to Hermione while facing the camera instead, insistently remediating her for ‘his’ audience. The stage cameras stay distant from Hermione for much of this scene, though by the end of this scene even they are being pulled in close to Jacobs’s magnetic performance – however, the production intelligently puts Leontes’ and Hermione’s different strategies into productive tension.
Leontes needs the cameras. In Kloska’s performance, Leontes is a bitter little man who seems small. His rage hits a hysterical pitch early on, and unfortunately doesn’t leave the actor much space to go, making the performance a little monotonous at first (though he manages to switch up a gear when flailing at Camillo, and later while screeching at Paulina and Antigonus). Hermione is radiant, confident, moving around the centre of the stage with a grace and charm that seem to win over everyone. Leontes is marginalised, stuck at the edge of the stage with his head slightly hung, seeming like he has internalised his sense of impotency so much that he’s already isolating himself. It’s in this vein that he turns to the camera for support, and the camera gives it him – in a particularly disappointing choice, the camera even goes for a close-up on Hermione and Polixenes holding hands that Leontes himself doesn’t see, as if the camera is independently providing verification of Leontes’ imagination. But even this support isn’t enough for Leontes. The production and Kloska’s performance do an excellent job of portraying him as a sad little man whose bluster and self-pity are pathetic; however, he never seems to command any authority. Camillo speaks back to him frankly, Paulina talks rings around him, and Hermione seems entirely unabashed by his accusations. It’s never quite clear why those around him don’t laugh in his face at his threats, as he doesn’t seem to wield any physical or constitutional authority. Even when he flails the sword on which he makes his courtiers swear around as if to threaten people with it, it’s clear he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
The men in Leontes’ court, in general, are weak, and Whyman’s production is clear that women are (or should be) the real power in Sicilia. Leontes most clearly shows his instability when he kicks Perdita’s crib flying off the stage – a genuinely shocking moment, especially as I had temporarily forgotten that a Gentleman (Baker Mukasa) was trying desperately to calm the crying baby in his arms (unsuccessfully). The Gentleman fails to stop Leontes, too, from grabbing Perdita’s head in a vice-like grip, a genuinely unsettling gesture in its violence and disregard. Antigonus (Colm Gormley), too, is sincere in his pleas with Leontes, but ultimately unable to break through, and his sigh of exasperation at the difficulty of controlling his own wife spoke very poorly of him. By contrast, Amanda Hadingue’s Paulina is a formidable substitute for Hermione, a no-nonsense WI-type who strides confidently across the stage and speaks without shame or fear, and with no small amount of scorn for her husband. Yet Hadingue’s Paulina is also vulnerable – in one of the production’s strongest moments, after Hermione’s ‘death’, Paulina takes no prisoners as she chews out Leontes, but when her rage is spent, she becomes subdued and cries quietly.
The women of the play take vengeance on weak men in the transition to Bohemia. Emerging from the grid-like scaffolding structure that made up the backdrop, five female members of the ensemble move slowly, walking backwards towards Antigonus as he cradles Perdita in his arms in the centre of a ring of fans (the onstage fans creating an impressive tunnel of air). Turning to face them, Antigonus finds himself lashed and mauled by the sweeping arms and ferocious swipes of the five women, moving as one, a roar of women’s rage that reaches across the ocean and takes vengeance on the man who has carried out Leontes’ orders. As Antigonus is killed, a single long cloth floats and shifts in the tunnel of air created by the fan, which an ethereal Hermione pulls down and remakes as her daughter, swaddling it together to give Perdita a second birth in Bohemia.
The 1960s setting for Bohemia has been done before (Propeller come immediately to mind), and here creates a mish-mash of colourful reference points that one suspects would have worked better with an audience present. Odeke’s Autolycus sets the tone with a song set to a medley of 60s musical styles from big band to rock n’roll, and does a nice Hamlet skit with a skull. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music – and the on-point onstage band – were a highlight of this second half, creating a festival atmosphere that wanders oddly in its reference points, but at least (and most importantly) captured the fun of the sheep-shearing. Autolycus, in particular, seems to be just doing his own thing – at one point, faced with needing to exchange clothes with Florizel, he shoves his face into a Victoria sponge (as a disguise) and strips off his trousers, before confronting the Shepherds with confident hand on hips, cream-covered face and shirt tucked into underpants.
Bohemia is coded as the North East of England (Newcastle or close enough), and is suitably earthy. Here the Shepherd is regendered as a Shepherdess (Zoe Lambert), Mopsa and Dorcas (Vicky Hall and Alice Blundell) get additional stage time, including being present with the Young Shepherd (William Grint) at the start of his being robbed, and Bohemia – or at least this part of it – feels like a women-run place. This provides the context in which Perdita (Georgia Landers) flowers. This Perdita is confident, even cocky. The remediation comes into play again here as the sheep-shearing is filmed on an early home video camera, and Perdita enjoys flirting with the camera, showing her enjoyment of sexual puns and kissing Florizel (the winsome Assad Zaman) without embarrassment. Particularly in contrast to Sicilia, this feels like a liberated space, which makes it all the more awful when Polixenes (Andrew French) reveals himself, roaring into the centre of the revellers and taking up an enormous amount of space with his violence. French’s performance is one of the buried delights of this production. In Sicilia he is quiet, confident, and a polite match for Jacobs’s charming Hermione; when he discovers Leontes’ betrayal, he is devastated, and leaves sadly. So his sudden roar of rage in Bohemia feels all the more shocking for having come from such a peaceful place, betraying the ferocity with which he governs his own interests, at any rate.
There are more subtleties, but I particularly wanted to address the excellent performances by the two Deaf actors, Grint as the Young Shepherd and Bea Webster as Emilia. Emilia is prominent in the Sicilia scenes, and there’s a touching moment as Ihsan Ahmed’s Mamillius signs with her, showing a connection between the two. The production’s treatment of its Deaf characters is, however, inconsistent – Emilia, in particular, is signed to very inconsistently, and the film oscillates between providing subtitles for her and not. The inconsistencies carry over into the Bohemia scenes, where a lot of work has been put into reworking scenes such as Autolycus robbing the Clown – which here has five people onstage for much of its length, including Mopsa and Dorcas – but which becomes quickly cluttered and confused. Grint’s performance is excellent, showing vulnerability as Mopsa and Dorcas fight for his attention, but there are too many moments when actors seem to be speaking over him rather than listening to him, especially during the ‘gentlemen born’ scene where the Shepherdess speaks a version of the Clown’s lines in English while the Clown signs, but converting the language to position it from her own point of view.
The return to Sicilia suggests the melding of worlds. Sicilia now appears to be predominantly run by women, including Cleomines and Dion (Avita Jay and Mogali Masuku), and Leontes seems to be a much calmer figure, still with a nervous energy that makes sense of his hysteria earlier, but now more grounded, more at peace with himself. And it’s in this vein that he is reunited with Hermione, who the camera stays disappointingly different from while she stands as a statue, surrounded by ceiling-high drapes that keep her partially concealed from the surroundings and render her as part of the backdrop. At the point of awakening, though, the remaining drapes fall to the ground and the family are able to gather around. The conclusion is moving, though weirdly the most highlighted moment is actually the announcement of Paulina’s betrothal to Camillo (Ben Caplan), for which the production slows right down to give it significance. After Leontes announces their engagement, the two turn slowly to one another, walk together, and then suddenly give each other an enormous, emotional embrace, as if suddenly clinging to their only rock in a stormy sea. It doesn’t feel earned by what we’ve seen of them before, but it’s a powerful moment, beautifully delivered.
This Winter’s Tale doesn’t feel like one that makes a distinctive case for the play. Its moments of striking visual beauty and conceptual movement – as in the Bear attack – are riveting, but the production seems to move from idea to idea without consistency, and lovely ideas such as the remediation of Hermione’s trial are regrettably not followed up on. And in playing such a loud, lively production to an empty theatre, the production set itself a formidable challenge in attempting to create an atmosphere. But at its best, this is a thoughtful, visually rich production, whose austere, statuesque curtain call – no bows, just standing – acknowledges the lack of its physical audience and invites us back to Stratford.
Thanks to Nora Williams and everyone who took part in the #WTWatchParty including Pascale Aebischer, Thea Buckley, Susanne Greenhalgh, Erin Sullivan, John Wyver and others.
Great review. A good point on film: the camera has mediated (even altered) the performances in this production — something which I’ve also noticed in new & contemporary plays being produced in smaller theatres across the UK (e.g. Bush theatre, London).
It’s a tough job having to battle with empty seats due to COVID-19. These plays are films — that much is obvious (or is it?), and the RSC is playing a risky game designing future productions for camera. Granted: at the moment they have no choice. But let’s start thinking about what a post-COVID-stage environment will look like, because the audience has to be there for the stage actor to deliver a full-fleshed performance. . . .
Looking forward to your next posts, Peter.