Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Bridge Project at BAM

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William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Richard Easton, Michael Braun and Morven Christie, photo Joan Marcus

The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare
A Bridge Project production at BAM, directed by Sam Mendes

Simon Russell Beale – Leontes, King of Sicily
Michael Braun – Dion, Lord of Sicilia/Florizel
Morven Christie – Perdita/Mamillius
Sinéad Cusack – Paulina, wife to Antigonus
Richard Easton – Old Shepherd/Time
Rebecca Hall – Hermione
Josh Hamilton – Polixenes, King of Bohemia
Ethan Hawke – Autolycus
Paul Jesson – Camillo, Lord of Sicilia
Aaron Krohn – Servant of Sicilia/Servant of Bohemia
Dakin Matthews – Antigonus, Lord of Sicilia/Shepherd
Mark Nelson – Lord of Sicilia/Mariner/Shepherd
Charlotte Parry – lady-in-waiting to Hermione/Mopsa, a shepherdess
Gary Powell – Cleomenes, Lord of Sicilia/Gaoler/Bear/Shepherd
Tobias Segal – Young Shepherd
Jessica Pollert Smith – Dorcas, a sheperdess
Hannah Stokely – Emilia, lady-in-waiting to Hermione/Shepherdess

Set design – Anthony Ward
Costume design – Catherine Zuber
Lighting design – Paul Pyant
Sound design – Paul Arditti
Hair & wig design – Tom Watson
Illusions – Peter Samelson
Associate Director – Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Dialect Coach – Timothy Monich
Casting – Nancy Piccione and Maggie Lunn
Music – Mark Bennett
Music direction – Dan Lipton
Choreography – Josh Prince

[Read Huntley Dent’s review of the Bridge Project’s Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic.]

I had to wait impatiently until the final day of The Winter’s Tale to see it. After my eager anticipation, was it my fantasy that a good part of the audience had seen it once or twice before and were coming to bid this magical, but imperfect production a fond farewell. My imagination was probably only exaggerating, but there were probably enough recidivists there to create the atmosphere I sensed. There was something else, however. Especially before the break, there was a striking amount of laughter in the wrong places—at moments in which some of the best actors in the business under Sam Mendes’ supremely imaginative and skilled direction, were most definitely not playing it for laughs. Did this arise from the warmth of prior experience—something akin to the way Brattle Theatre audiences used to shout out Humphrey Bogart’s lines in Casablanca? Probably not. It most likely emerged from the inevitable disjuncture between mentalities of 2009 New York and Blackfriars c. 1611. The BAM audience was perhaps 60% old and 40% young without too much in between. Before the performance and during the break, the older among us had drinks and conversed in an intellectual, Brooklyn-like vein, while the youth texted and immersed themselves in some unknown magic, staring at pocket-sized electronic devices I could not identify. This was the group that found only sporadic amusement in Autolycus’ antics and the lengthy succession of dances, songs, and jokes in the pastoral interlude (Act IV, sc. iv), except when it was overtly obscene, and tittered at one of our greatest actors, Simon Russell Beale, in one of the most important and most gripping moments of the play:

Leo. Why, that was when
Three crabbed Moneths had sowr’d themselues to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white Hand:
A clap thy selfe, my Loue; then didst thou vtter,
I am yours for euer.

Her. ‘Tis Grace indeed.
Why lo-you now; I haue spoke to th’ purpose twice:
The one, for euer earn’d a Royall Husband;
Th’ other, for some while a Friend.

Leo. Too hot, too hot: [LAUGHTER]
To mingle friendship farre, is mingling bloods.
I haue Tremor Cordis on me: my heart daunces,
But not for ioy; not ioy. This Entertainment
May a free face put on: deriue a Libertie
From Heartinesse, from Bountie, fertile Bosome,
And well become the Agent: ‘t may; I graunt:
But to be padling Palmes, and pinching Fingers,
As now they are, and making practis’d Smiles
As in a Looking-Glasse; and then to sigh, as ’twere
The Mort o’th’ Deere: oh, that is entertainment
My Bosome likes not, nor my Browes. [LAUGHTER]
Act I, sc ii, 102-119

Was the heat to which Leontes refers too insipid by Hollywood standards? Hermione’s and Polixenes’ conversation was suggestive enough. Surely the outburst would have reminded the young text-maniacs of something familiar, if only Dad in one of his ugly moods after a week on Wall Street. Was it the suddenness of Leontes’ response to Hermione’s news that elicited the hilarity, or was it something else? This kind of sudden outburst, rarely seen today, because modern playwrights and filmmakers tend to prepare such moments well in advance and build up to them. By contrast, these sudden “fits of passion,” to use an outmoded phrase, were, as Tiffany Stern observes, highly appreciated in Shakespeare’s day (Making Shakespeare, pp. 80f.). They were both moving in themselves and provided the the actor with an opportunity to overwhelm the audience with his art. The effect is not dead, however, because Shakespeare has preserved it for us, and Mendes and Beale were quite right in meeting it on its own terms, not that the pacing and pointing of the scene were not supremely intelligent and naturally flowing. In fact the indecisive and contradictory actions of the unbalanced Leontes continued to arouse laughter, as he sank into the tyrannical extremes which cost him everything he loved.

The audience’s laughter at line 119 is perhaps more understandable, since it hinges on two mildly old-fashioned words, “bosom” and “brows,” which are even obsolete or archaic in some of their meanings, particularly in Shakespeare’s usage. I can’t believe that it is only the reference to the female anatomy that occasioned the mirth, any more than I believe the entire audience understood the reference to cuckoldry. Of course it’s there, but more as sauce than meat. In “and then to sigh, as ’twere The Mort o’th’ Deere,”there is both pathos (from the reference to the hunter’s traditional horn call at the death of the deer) and ferocious irony, while in “oh, that is entertainment My Bosome likes not, nor my Browes” the irony continues. Leontes’ reference to his “browes” has a double meaning, first that he cannot conceal his emotions, and secondly as a reference to his forehead as the seat of a cuckold’s horns. Both “bosome” and “browes” are mildly metonymical, although Leontes’ use of “bosome” as the seat of the passions is entirely within the common usage of Shakespeare’s time. He uses the plural, “browes,” which refers more literally to a part of the body rather than the more figurative and poetic singular, which is more at home in the moral range of the word’s meaning. Hence “browes” should refer literally to Leontes’ forehead and through metonymy to his countenance, although “bosome,” with which it is balanced, pulls it somewhat in the direction of its moral sense. While Shakespeare intended his wit more as spice—heightened expression in the soliloquy of an unhinged mind—his character’s witticism is a bitter one. Today the subtle electricity of this line and the associations within it can easily trip our synapses in the wrong way, even if we understand it, let alone what Groucho Marx might have made of it.

Rebecca Hall and Simon Russell Beale as Hermione and Leontes. Photo Joan Marcus

Rebecca Hall and Simon Russell Beale as Hermione and Leontes. Photo Joan Marcus

Things start to get ugly. Photo Joan Marcus

Things start to get ugly. Photo Joan Marcus

Otherwise The Winter’s Tale has been quite popular in recent years, like Shakespeare’s other romances. I’m not sure whether audiences have ever had so many opportunities to see it, along with Pericles and Cymbeline, two other splendid plays, long overshadowed by The Tempest. The Winter’s Tale, with its story of overpowering jealousy, delusion, tyrannical injustice, repentance, and redemption which speaks directly to our contemporary enthusiasm for healing and renewal. It’s a natural for new-ageists.

Then there is the bear.* The enormous, meticulously designed bear suit was impressive, Gary Powell’s management of it was both deft and expressive, and the scene was, as usual, funny, but scary as well (which is less common), especially as the huge hulk settled over its victim like a pyramid. The infamous stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear” (which, obviously, was not observed in this production) ushers in the lengthy, fantastical middle section, which culminates in the sheep-shearing festival, an earthy pastoral interlude, full of popular song and dance, that draws our attention as far away from the troubles of the Sicilian court as the sixteen years that pass, with Leontes deep in penance and mourning. Richard Easton also enters here (Act III, sc. iii), as the old shepherd, who instantly transforms himself into the Chorus, Time, at the beginning of Act IV. Sam Mendes clearly did not want to stint Shakespeare’s hodge-podge of low comedy and masque, which is so often an embarrassment to moderns and is accordingly trimmed or understated (Simon Forman, who was present at a 1611 performance, interestingly summarizes this central section and the general doings of Autolycus the rogue as a separate story, told at the end of the main plot.), but Mendes throws his cast into it whole-heartedly, and the result is satisfying in concept and execution, for the most part. However, it is mainly Richard Easton’s sunny presence as the shepherd/Time/enriched shepherd that carries the section. This unassuming, but charismatic Canadian actor, who has had as much experience on the British stage as in America, was thoroughly charming as he filled Ralph Richardson’s shoes as Jack in David Storey’s Home last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Here, his character expands with new-found and well-managed wealth. You could not imagine a more likable nouveau-riche, as he presides generously over the celebrations and humanely over Perdita and Florizel’s difficulties.

Easton’s individual work and the general good feeling of the treatment, provided, surprisingly, some margin for error, although not, alas, inexhaustibly. I found Ethan Hawke’s fussy, heavy-handed Autolycus easier to bear than the young Scottish actress, Morven Christie’s strange Americanesque accent as Perdita. (Mendes intended the Sicilians to be Victorian Brits and the Bohemians Americans of sixteen years later.) Her delivery of the famous flower-speeches in Act IV, sc. iv, ll. 71-135 was painful to the ears. Otherwise her performance had energy, and she spoke her lines with flair and a fine sense of shape. What’s more, she looked very attractive in a part which has defined actresses’ careers—as in the case of the famous beauty Mary Robinson, who acquired the nickname “Perdita” from her popularity in the role. She also played Perdita’s sad brother, Mamillius, most affectingly. It’s a pity that her exaggeration of her “Bohemian” accent to indicate Perdita’s acculturation to the shepherd’s life in Bohemia led her astray. Ethan Hawke is another matter. He is intelligent and meticulous, but he clearly thinks and works much too hard. (One could same the same, although less emphatically, of his Trofimov in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, which preceded and alternated with The Winter’s Tale.) While he handled the considerable musical part of his role quite effectively, his work was totally lacking in the intangible communication in which Richard Easton excels. Josh Hamilton sported a strong, gritty American accent which enhanced his hard-edged portrayal of Polixenes, especially in his indignation at his treatment by Leontes and in his rigid opposition to his son Florizel’s supposedly “low” marriage. Michael Braun showed exemplary discipline and intelligence as Florizel and delivered his lines impeccably. This graduate of Yale and veteran of the Williamstown Theatre Festival struck me an exceptionally promising young American actor.

Rebecca Hall was a vivid Hermione, both queen-like and expensively sexy in her scenes with Polixenes in Act I, despairing and dignified as she is abused by her husband later, and achieving impressive dignity through suffering in Act V.

Although Mendes conceived The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard as ensemble pieces with highly individualized characterizations by actors who are encouraged to bring their personal strengths, training, and accents to bear on their parts, it was inevitable that the two seasoned greats in the company would shine out. Sinéad Cusack as Paulina, Antigonus’ widow, used her rich contralto and Irish sense of rhythm to lend extraordinary color and musicality to her precise, but uninhibited and expressive delivery. Simon Russell Beale, as I have already mentioned, was nothing less than an example to all in how to speak Shakespeare’s lines. His diction and his shaping of complex syntax were always perfectly clear, as he worked wonders with the rhythm and nuance of the language. However, like Easton and Cusack, he can create a mood and communicate meaning seemingly without words or gestures. He has the art of Gielgud and Michael Redgrave’s ability to reach into our hearts with bare hands.**

As it progressed, I found this production constantly fascinating and deeply moving.

With simple means—this is meant to be a touring production—Anthony Ward created a handsome, resonant environment for the unfolding of the tale, whether in the dark, burnished rooms of Leontes’ palace or the bright out-of-doors of the pastoral. In the final scene he placed Hermione’s statue front and center, giving her an apparent enormity of proportion over the stage, and, instead of Giulio Romano, he gives us Parmigianino, with an expanse of flowing drapery below and attenuated head and limbs above, and just the right elegance of gesture. Mark Bennett’s updated music was quite enjoyable as well, including some balladesque passages Shakespeare himself might have recognised.

As in The Cherry Orchard, Sam Mendes’ production went in two directions at once: an atmospheric, sweeping narrative and a plethora of striking details, whether in a quirk of character or an actor’s style, or the beauty of Shakespearean verse. The result was engrossing, moving, and convincing, in spite of the disassociating force of his double gesture. This ambitious approach successfully addressed both the intellect and the heart. While its flaws, stemming mostly from the approaches of individual actors, were not insignificant, Mendes’ encouragement of individuality only contributed to the liveliness of the performance. Another shortcoming derives from the concept on which Mr. Mendes and the producer, Kevin Spacey, have founded The Bridge Project, which will fortunately continue on for two more years, that is the interaction of British and American actors. On the one hand, it is a highly commendable endeavor to bring American and British Actors’ Equities together in a constructive way, but they make much too much of the perceived difference in the training and skills of British and American actors. The choice of repertory was based on the supposed superiority of Americans in Chekhov and of the British in Shakespeare. In reality, I’m afraid, you’re as likely to see a satisfactory Chekhov production in the UK as in the US, and, if you want to do justice to Shakespeare, the odds are in your favor on the other side of the Atlantic. However, we have seen lately quite a few productions in which American and British actors well effectively or brilliantly together. The prime example was the wonderful Royal Court import of Chekhov’s Seagull, in which American actors, blending into a production created in London, were truly excellent. Summer productions in the Berkshires also often bring Americans together with the British, some of them expatriates, above all, Shakespeare and Company, which has a energetic and well-developed training program intended to disseminate British Shakespearean technique while accommodating American accents and acting styles. In that respect the Bridge experiment was not entirely successful—almost a step backwards, if you take it in context—but it was stimulating and promising, and one can only look forward to seeing its future development.

I’m not the only theater-goes who grew up on Shakespeare performed in consistent received pronunciation—a convention in Britain and America since the nineteenth century, which has nothing to do with what Shakespeare’s own audiences heard. One of the few points on which scholars of the subject agree is that the King’s Men and other groups of the time generally retained their own regional accents, so that there was no such consistency. In general the Elizabethan and Jacobean mode of speech sounded more like American English, innocent of the great vowel shift, which gave us the peculiar vowel sounds which have reigned in the UK since Hazlitt’s day or earlier. Performance styles are constantly evolving, and it is of course a good thing if initiatives like Shakespeare and Company and the Bridge Project help us along.

Like the much-travelled Indian Midsummer Night’s Dream (reviewed here by Lucas Miller) the Bridge Project will tour the world before settling at the Old Vic in London. Here is the schedule:

Singapore Repertory Theatre, Singapore, Mar 26–31
The EDGE, Auckland, April 4–12
Teatro Español, Madrid, April 18–29
Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Germany, May 3–13
The Old Vic, London, May 22–Aug 15
Athens & Epidaurus Festival, Greece, Aug 21–22

One other point arises. The Harvey Theater, which was originally a traditional playhouse, housing Shakespearean revivals, vaudeville reviews, and musicals, was converted into a movie house in 1942, only to be abandoned in 1968. It was acquired for BAM in 1987 by BAM’s then-president Harvey Lichtenstein for the landmark production of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata. It is a large space, and one can’t blame BAM too much for using a sound system to deliver give every visitor a satisfactory experience. On the other hand amplification should be avoided whenever possible in legitimate theater. The acoustics of the Old Vic and the theater at Epidauros are renowned, and there is little excuse for electronic aids in either of them. Purists may wish to catch The Bridge Project performances in either of those venues.

*The question of the bear, whether a real bear or an actor in a bearskin was employed at the Blackfriars performance is one of the most hotly debated questions in modern Shakespearean scholarship. As Stephen Orgel has commented in his Oxford Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale:

Men in bear suits are, on our stage at least , inescapably comic, and critics who wish to keep the moment safe from comedy have therefore argued that the bear must be a real one. Quiller-Couch, in the Cambridge New Shakespeare, has even located a hire service for the bear, suggesting that the King’s Men had obtained a tame animal from the nearby bear-pit in Southwark. Pafford, though with some caution concurs in these arguments. But Neville Coghill is surely correct to insist that no bear has ever been tame enough to be a reliable performer (Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958), 34-5), and Schanzer observes that there is a good deal of evidence of actors in bearskins on the Elizabethan stage, but none that a real bear was ever used. As for the question of inappropriate comedy, it is not, of course, clear that Jacobean audiences found bear suits funny; but neither is it clear that the moment was not intended to be comic—Antigonus’ death is being clowned up only thirty lines later, and for Shakespeare’s audience the comedy could certainly have started with the bear’s entrance. In a treatment of the question that opens it up to a wider context, Louise G. Clubb points out that in continental pastoral drama bears are always both comic and tragic, and in fact constitute a topos marking the mixed genre of tragicomedy (‘The Tragicomic Bear,” Comparative Literature Studies, 9 (1972), 17-36).

While I agree that the moment is indeed comic, and it sets off the long comic-musical interlude and the Old Shepherd’s entrance with a bold gesture, I believe that a real, live bear can be as funny as an actor in a bear suit. Furthermore, a live bear brought over from the old Globe’s neighbor, the Paris Bear Gardens, could have touched a nostalgic nerve in Shakespeare’s long-time fans, who would have remembered the cheap, low pleasures of Southwark fondly: Shakespeare, the bear-pit, and the brothel. Moreover, if a bear can be taught to dance (In the same footnote Orgel mentions John Urson [whoreson/son of a b…] and his dancing bears who played in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Augurs [1622].), he can be trained to chase the elderly courtier off the stage, an action lasting only seconds, or at most a few minutes, if the company really milked it. On the other hand the thought of one of these potentially dangerous animals on the stage of a small, candlelit theater full of gentlefolk dressed to the nines is worrying.

** Not every critic will agree with my estimate. Tynan considered Sir Michael Redgrave to be a cold, intellectual actor, but I cannot agree. While his nuance of inflection and vocal beauty were the equal of Gielgud, he has always impressed me as a very emotional actor, as is apparent in his moving portrayal of Vanya in the television film of Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1963 Chichester production of Uncle Vanya, not to mention his predilection for characters on the brink of insanity.

[Read Huntley Dent’s review of the Bridge Project’s Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic.]

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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