The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Bridge Project Production at the Old Vic
Simon Russell Beale – Leontes
Sinéad Cusack – Paulina
Richard Easton – Old Shepherd
Rebecca Hall – Hermione
Josh Hamilton – Polixenes
Ethan Hawke – Autolycus
Paul Jesson – Camilo
Morven Christie – Perdita
Michael Braun – Florizel
Directed by Sam Mendes
I’ve gone to a lot of Shakespeare this summer, four plays in a month, but nothing had me more curious than the Old Vic’s transatlantic production of The Winter’s Tale. It’s one half of the Bridge Project, which combines British and American actors in productions that appeared first in New York and now in London. The Winter’s Tale alternates with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and although various critics prefer one over the other, all agree that Simon Russell Beale, as King Leontes, has been stellar. He would almost have to be, given the impossibility of the role. Othello’s jealousy seems improbable to many, spurred as it is by a stolen handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, but Iago’s malice ignites it and keeps it burning. Leontes, the other famous case of jealousy in Shakespeare, starts out cold and has only his own imagination to fuel his rage. Everyone around him thinks he’s off his head, and since the play makes clear that his wronged queen, Hermione, is a model of virtue to rank with Patient Griselda, the fact that Leontes takes no more than twenty lines before he falls into his deluded obsession makes the situation all the more strange. Or is that the point, once we figure out the play’s intentions?
Russell Beale clearly relished the opportunity to turn the tables on a stereotype, and director Sam Mendes has aided him by cutting the first scene, which consists of two courtiers talking at length, instead going directly to Leontes and the onset of his suspicions. For most critics, Winter’s Tale is dominated by artifice: besides its fairy-tale events, sudden about faces, a long pastoral festivity in the fourth act, and the magical awakening of a statue in the final scene, the text repeats the word “tale” throughout. The sense of an old tale retold permeates everything even though the tale is actually new to us. Which may be a sly misdirection from the writer, who has more radical notions in mind, or more profound ones. Russell Beale wants that to be true. He gives Leontes the full-blown psychological treatment due to Lear or Hamlet, filling out his jealous, bawdy rants with hesitations, confused gestures, sidelong glances, worried murmurs, and other signs of ambivalence, so that the Danish prince who can’t bring himself to kill his uncle has a sibling in this Sicilian king who toys helplessly with killing his wife and new-born child. Weakness gives this Leontes, who is already a gray beard when the curtain rises, his pathos. The text affords Leontes one sympathetic trait, his devotion to his frail young son Mamillius, and Mendes amplifies that by having the boy onstage in scenes where he’s not called for, acting as a silent spectator either in bed or, as he grows sick, in a wheelchair, so that Leontes can pet and hug him.
Hermione is the willowy, dark-haired, gravely radiant Rebecca Hall, who makes a good effort with her long trial speech and its triple change of emotions between pained near-muteness and righteous confrontation of her accuser. But two actors rise closest to Russell Beale’s level: Sinéad Cusack, takes the usually thankless role of the old court lady Paulina, whose task is to keep the king aware of his guilty crime for sixteen years—Cusack avoids hectoring and yet maintains the proper moral gravity. Ethan Hawke makes a star turn out of the role of Autolycus, the cut-purse and all-around confidence man in the Bohemia scenes. This pastoral section of the play stood out as the most appealing to the Victorians; now we tend to drum our fingers while various country-bumpkin antics are attempted. Mendes’ are no more successful than average, I imagine, and he’s picked two young lovers, Michael Braun as Florizel and Morven Christie as Perdita, whose line deliveries were amateurish (with Christie winning the rusty ear trumpet award for most jarring American accent, a close contest since the pastoral scenes were set in a Midwestern farm town, or some such, where the accent was early Dogpatch). Hawke, as a Woody Guthrie-like roving troubadour, turned up the wattage on rascally charm while also finding a wide variety of accents and flimflam for his precious rogue. He saved the day on the seacoast of Bohemia.
A good cast, then, set to doing a lot of business. But the elusive spirit of The Winter’s Tale has puzzled directors and audiences since its inception. We have records of quite a few early performances, beginning in 1610, including one before King James at court. If that’s the date of composition—the play’s awkwardness inclined older scholars to speculate that it was an early effort—then we are witnessing dramaturgy from a very experienced playwright, one with all the great tragedies behind him. Why would such a limitless writer resort to preposterous, stilted, even callow storytelling? Callow because the subject of cuckoldry, which brings out reams of rage from Leontes, appears in most Shakespeare plays as a commonplace, often a humorous one bandied about by the low characters (keeping Othello in mind as the great exception), and the exemplar of the wronged wife who undergoes extreme pain and suffering to prove her virtue feels medieval.
Romance, under which The Winter’s Tale is generally classified, seems like a flimsy rubric for this melange of fable, morality play, miracle story, and artless fairy tale. Shakespeare takes no pains to keep the joints from showing. Altogether, the play is a strange turning back to rawness, all the more surprising because Shakespeare lifted the plot wholesale from a romance novel by his contemporary, Robert Greene, without changes, a rare instance for him. His major alteration was to have Hermione reappear after being thought dead and having Leontes reunited with her when Greene has him commit suicide out of shame for his false accusations.
Yet to many modern commentators, those changes are the linchpin of the play, standing for the themes of resurrection and repentance. Ever since the New Criticism, we’ve turned the corner from focusing on the characters to focusing on the text. This colors the performance, of course, because if you’ve been taught the text as poetry, your ear is guided by key lines, such as the Old Shepherd’s “Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things dying, I with things newborn.” Lit Crit has drummed into us (quite rightly) that these are not real people on stage but imaginative creations whose words spin out themes and patterns of imagery. The crucial patterns in The Winter’s Tale have to do with birth and death, the seasons, renewal, Nature as the source of innocence, and the corruption of sin.
Yet despite its high reputation, does The Winter’s Tale feel like a masterpiece when you encounter it onstage, or for that matter a major feat of poetry on the order of Lear, Much Ado, Midsummer Night’s Dream, or to name the crown jewel of the late romances, The Tempest? For me, the answer is no. There is no comparable density of thought and art. Just because “renewal” and “resurrection” are profound themes doesn’t mean that Shakespeare has treated them profoundly here. I don’t hear anyone who speaks for him; these seem to be one-dimensional characters exemplifying fairly narrow types, albeit with Shakespearean skill—no mean thing. One reads that the final scene where Hermione appears as a statue and then turns into a living woman counts as one of the most moving in the whole canon. Not to me. Mendes takes great pains with lighting to establish a magical mood, Russell Beale picks up his suffering where we left it an hour ago (is that skill?), the music and timing are exquisite. All the mechanics are perfect, yet what is actually occurring? A kind of medieval tableau of virtue and repentance, nowhere near Shakespeare’s core genius, which is for psychological realism treated with far-reaching humanity. The play would work well enough with puppets.
Naturally, one must leave open two possibilities. First, Shakespeare’s working conditions are unknown to us, and perhaps The Winter’s Tale had some external conditions imposed upon it—a patron’s tastes, the obligations of writing for aristocrats, a tempting new fashion for romance that Shakespeare wanted to try his hand at. All of it is a blank. More likely is that his imagination had its own reasons for venturing into extreme artifice—the almost total absence of psychological realism must be a clue. Was an older man looking back with stark regard for human behavior? Did the arbitrariness of human emotions elicit a play about arbitrariness? At the end, after Hermione miraculously revives (some critics actually believe she had been turned into a statue, but I think it’s obvious she was playing a part), she doesn’t address a single word of love or forgiveness toward Leontes, nor does he speak to her—Hermione focuses entirely on her daughter Perdita, the king entirely on Paulina. Mendes provides a silent embrace, as the text indicates, but still one wonders: How did Shakespeare hit upon this strange dramaturgy?
I am offering a response to seeing The Winter’s Tale enacted, with the added confession that for me the three problematic romances—Pericles and Cymbeline are the other two—depart too far from Shakespeare’s consummate gifts. They have always baffled me, and since I never expect to see a better Winter’s Tale, I suppose they always will.