Sunday, 5 June 2005

The Winter's Tale - Shakespeare's Globe 2005

The Winter's Tale
Shakespeare's Globe, London, UK.

I know what runs through your mind when someone mentions The Winter’s Tale, the first thing that you think: Exit, pursued by a bear. Well OK, so maybe it’s the second thing you think. But after you’ve hummed a few bars of the song whose name I will not mention, you do get to thinking about bears. ‘A bear?’ you say to yourself. ‘How the devil will they do that?’ Well, I’m not telling you. Go find out for yourself. 

Truth be told, I’ve always felt slightly cheated by this play. We are not allowed to witness the scene we have been waiting to see throughout the whole play – the moment when Leontes and Perdita discover that they are father and daughter. Instead we have to experience this precious moment second-hand, which is not at all the same thing, rich though it may be in the telling. It is true that we are treated to the climactic following scene where we learn Hermione’s secret, but even then nothing is really explained and full resolution never reached. I always come away feeling emotionally short-changed and dramatically cheated. So it was with some trepidation that I arrived at the Shakespeare’s Globe performance of this perfidious tragicomedy. 

From the first appearance onstage of Leontes and Polixenes the atmosphere of this piece is established as one of measured energy and strong, even-paced passions. The characters, at various times, are angry, jealous, despairing - and yet they do not rage or howl in the process of venting these emotions. One could argue that there is the potential within the text for playing Hermione, Paulina and others as characters who have loud and wild outbursts in lamenting their misfortune. However, in this production even the passionate speeches are tinged with restraint. To lose one's cool is to lose the element of control which these characters are struggling for. By keeping their behaviour within the bounds of acceptability they retain their sense of dignity, and gain our respect. 

The performances of Yolanda Vazquez as Hermione, and Penelope Beaumont as Paulina, are outstanding, and for me these characters were the highlight of the whole production. They are portrayed as extremely strong women - intellectually, emotionally and morally - and their appearance sweeps all else away. Paulina, especially, resonates power, and I wanted to take her off the stage and send her out into the world to set right some of its problems. Paul Jesson as Leontes manages to play up the element of ridiculousness within the king’s jealous behaviour, whilst retaining his sense of regality. We do have some light entertainment, mainly in the form of Autolycus (Colin Hurley), who in good Globe tradition gets the audience to join in with his roguish singing. 

The costuming of this piece is rich with velvets and jewelled buttons, tall hats and wide ruffs, whilst in contrast the set design is kept extremely simple, with a backdrop of a tapestry-style curtain showing a 16th century engraving called ‘The Triumph of Time’. Much is made of the music in this production, which, as ever, is delightful, with period-style instruments used throughout. 

The Winter’s Tale is often described as a play of two halves, and as the action moves from tragedy to comedy, urban to rural, courtly to rustic, one might expect a major change in the pace and energy of the piece. However, under the direction of John Dove this transition is made slight, and the more serious atmosphere retained throughout the comic scenes, just as the tragic scenes are laced through with comedy. If it seems that certain scenes lack a sense of impetuousness, then we can also say that the gravitas of this production allows the threads of the play to be pulled together and ultimately creates a pleasing symmetry and consistency. 

I came away from this production unjustified in my fears, and although I cannot claim to be converted in my opinion of the text itself, this time I left the theatre feeling thoroughly un-swindled.

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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