A few weeks ago, Satima kindly invited me to accompany her to a performance of The Winter’s Tale, given by the English all-male group Propellor as part of the Festival of Perth. Their version was a fine example of effective story-telling. The narrative was plain throughout and could have been readily followed without much prior knowledge of the plot, thanks to clever staging and some fine acting.
The extreme contrast between the play’s two halves was strongly exploited. The court of Sicilia was claustrophobic, a setting closed in by dark metallic walls which reflected the action back upon itself. Colours were dull, lighting hard, the actors moving formally and with control. It was easy to believe that Leontes’s mad obsessive jealousy and rage could flourish in this ambience. All was presided over by a huge, changing, malevolent moon, reminding one of its associations with lunacy. The atmosphere thus engendered added to the horror of Leontes’ s cruelty, chillingly emphasised by Hermione’s bloodied skirt after childbirth in prison. The king’s emotional and physical decline and his repentant grief after the death of his son and (as he thinks) his wife followed convincingly, along with Paulina’s unrelenting determination that he continue indefinitely to pay for his sins.
The terrifyingly loud and vivid storm on the shores of Bohemia brought us to the turning point of the play. Here in the ensuing calm, all was golden sunlight and good humour, with no enclosing walls. The celebrations at the end of shearing in a rural community were always accompanied by feasting, dancing, singing, music and much youthful flirtation and merry-making. The age-old customs are all in the text; but this production was set some time in the later 20th century. The musical instruments, the dancing, choice of songs and particularly the noise level in performance, were more raucous Big Day Out than earthy Harvest Home, and the 17th century literary conventions of the pastoral idyll were dispensed with. There were some lovely moments of hilarity, particularly in connection with the flock of 'sheep' (in Arran jumpers) and the gulling of the Clown by Autolycus, when his money and even the gormless lad’s clothes were dextrously appropriated by the beguilingly glib rogue, but the more romantic and poetic qualities of the scene were sacrificed. Perdita delivered her lines and presented her flowers almost perfunctorily, and Florizel’s passionate declarations were muted, as if they were judged not to chime with the tone of the scene as a whole.
The return to Sicilia was neatly accomplished and the finale contained all the necessary tension to hold the audience right till the final resolution.
We were made conscious of Time (as a major theme of the play) in a number of ways. At the start of each half there was the loud ticking of a clock; the moon’s passage from full to half to dark; the changing seasons – all subtle but tangible reminders – and the lovely starry sky for the final scene, without the menacing moon.
I thought it a clever decision to have the same actor play both Mamillius and Perdita. With no change other than (obviously) the costume, the two characters’ 'family likeness' was a gentle addition to the concept of the reunion. Mamillius as a character is easily overlooked, since he appears only early in the play, but this echo, through Perdita, kept him in our minds, along with the surprise ending: when all but Leontes had left the stage, the king had a sudden brief glimpse of him, the dead son who surely would not have been forgotten. The director also gave Mamillius the speech normally delivered by Time (as a character), so he linked the two parts of the play as he described the passing of sixteen years with the help of toy models.
When I saw this company’s performances of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night some years ago, I was struck by the skill with which male actors could create absolutely convincing female characters with only their dramatic abilities; there was no compromise at all with wigs, padding or make-up to help. In this play again there were no wigs for the leading roles, but the women of the court wore head-scarves and were given long dresses, which did not really add anything. Overall I felt that the female characters were less successfully realised than the main male characters. Hermione certainly spoke with vigour and firmness in her own defence at trial, but lacked the warmth and charm one might have expected in the early and final scenes. Paulina was almost martial in her bearing – suitably unbending in punishing Leontes – but again, failed to elicit from me the sympathy I would have expected to feel for her as one deprived of her husband and forced to hide her affections for the mistress to whom she was devoted. These are minor quibbles, though. I was left, after the show, with much to admire and even more to ponder over, in terms of the company’s interpretation and presentation. It was a memorable evening, and the strength of this production, for me, lay not only in the actual performance, but also in its leading me back to the text and a re-consideration of how I think about it.