Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Cheek by Jowl, at BAM

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Edward Sayer, Orlando James, Tom Cawte, Natalie Radmall-Quirke in Cheek by Jowl's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Edward Sayer, Orlando James, Tom Cawte, Natalie Radmall-Quirke in Cheek by Jowl’s production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Cheek by Jowl, at BAM

Director, Declan Donnellan
Designer, Nick Ormerod
Lighting Designer, Judith Greenwood
Composer, Paddy Cunneen
Movement Director, Jane Gibson
Assistant Movement Director, Elizabeth Ballinger
Assistant Director, Marcus Roche
Casting Director, Siobhan Bracke
Costume Supervisor, Angie Burns
Company Manager, Tim Speechley
Technical Director, Simon Bourne
Technical Stage Manager, Robin Turley Smith
Deputy Stage Manager, Harriet Stewart
Assistant Stage Manager, Lou Ballard
Sound, Fred Riding
Lighting, David Salter
Wardrobe Manager, Rebecca Rees

Leontes – Orlando James
Polixenes – Edward Sayer
Hermione / Dorcas – Natalie Radmall-Quirke
Perdita – Eleanor McLoughlin
Paulina / Mopsa – Joy Richardson
Emilia / Time – Grace Andrews
Camillo – David Carr
Autolycus – Ryan Donaldson
Florizel – Sam Woolf
Old Shepherd / Antigonus – Peter Moreton
Young Shepherd – Sam McArdle
Cleomenes – Joseph Black
Dion & Live Music Supervisor – Guy Hughes
Mamillius – Tom Cawte

The Winter’s Tale has had a checkered career over the centuries. Its bipartite structure, with two lines of action, separated by many years, of strongly contrasting character offended the Aristotelian canon all-too-blatantly for the classicizing generations of the Restoration and Enlightenment. Acts I through III have every promise of ending with the most bitterly tragic outcome. This current is diverted to a happy ending in the last two acts, introduced by yet a third genre, the pastoral, in a staged enactment of a sheep-shearing festival. When the play began to find its way to the stage in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, producers and actors saw in it a vehicle for over-the-top, classically inspired spectacle, as well as one of the great Shakespearean roles, Leontes, who is Iago and Othello rolled into one. It provided a powerful vehicle for Garrick, Kemble, and Kean. And three rich female roles as well, None of which were lost on the great actresses of the past 250 years.

The Winter’s Tale seems especially to resonate today. There is something almost new-agey in the way lives shattered by flawed judgement and cruel behavior are made whole again through the agency of innocent youth, and perhaps that is the key to its contemporary appeal. The way in which tragedy and comedy are separately developed to an extreme, contrasted, then united in their complementarity, is both typical of Shakespeare and unique in his oeuvre. He was not the only Elizabethan/Jacobean playwright to ignore Aristotle’s prescriptions, but he was the most extreme. Think of how much one laughs at a good performance of Hamlet or King Lear and how much one feels concern or tragic dread at good performance of As You Like It or All’s Well that Ends Well. Pericles, whether Shakespeare’s collaboration with George Wilkins or his rewrite of a disappointing original by Wilkins, opened up a new phase of experimentation for Shakespeare which led to The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. Of these, The Winter’s Tale is the most methodically programmatic, almost a manifesto of his tragicomic aesthetic.

…which means that The Winter’s Tale poses steep challenges for audiences and the directors and actors who seek their favor. Just how does one deal with the impending ursine doom of a civilized, dutiful courtier, as he is chased off the stage by member of the King’s Men in a bear costume? Isn’t it also a challenge to bring off that silly sheep-shearing festival? In comparison the device of the statue coming to life is a piece of cake. As artificial as it is, audiences always fall for it. Most productions I have seen approach each of the disparate elements of The Winter’s Tale in their traditional context—which means that we see the festival as a revisitation of Merrie England and the bear played for laughs.1 Cheek by Jowl’s production, by contrast, was committedly serious from beginning to end. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod found ways to integrate the pastoral and the feral into the profound humanistic context established by the first three acts.

They achieved this through a simple, but flexible set design, in which minimalistic props, like a bench or a box, can fulfill multifarious dramatic functions, as the actors work with them. The focus was on the superb cast, managed essentially as an ensemble, and Orlando James’ remarkable star turn as Leontes—acting which was psychologically penetrating, deeply humane in its empathy, and technically virtuosic. I have never seen a more effective production of this difficult play or a more affecting Leontes, not even Simon Russell Beale’s.

Mr. James is young, and so is Edward Sayer, who plays his dear childhood friend, Polixenes. We can imagine them somewhere in their twenties, when their good times in childhood were still vivid, but tinged with nostalgia. Especially when they are together, they are not quite grown up. We can understand that for Polixenes that these pre-adolescent romps have begun to pall, and that his decision to return to his kingly responsibilities in Bohemia. Hermione is also young, but, as played by Natalie Radmall-Quirke, she is more of an adult than either of the young kings, especially her husband, who, as an extremely sensitive,  emotional young man, stills lives partly in his childhood—most poignantly shown by his camaraderie with their young son, Mamillius, brilliantly played by Tom Cawte, who may look like a schoolboy but is sufficiently advanced in his teens to work as a mature actor. Only the consistent excellence of his colleagues prevents me from saying that he stole the show!

These scenes of intimacy within a growing family and an old friend, simply staged, with as few of the ensemble on stage as possible, regal attributes reduced to white shirts and ties—jackets off, because they are en famille, grow increasingly inward, as Leontes jealous fantasy takes over. Hermione, Polixenes, and Leontes  sit on a bench, which possibly suggests a see-saw, and, as his morbid passion take hold, Leontes manipulates wife and friend into sexually suggestive attitudes, as if they were puppets. In this production we soon enter deep into Leontes’ diseased psyche, which, as the production makes clear, is an untempered aspect of a highly emotional, imaginative, and potentially creative mind—one which could provide rich rewards to those around him. But Leontes becomes obsessed with the imagined adultery of Hermione and Polixenes. In fact there is an element in their relationship which could lend some foundation to his jealous rage: the fact that Hermione and Polixenes have both grown up, isolating the insecure Leontes in his childish fantasy world. As king and head of household he is able to do much damage, destroying Hermione’s reputation in open court, seeking to condemn her to death, and decreeing that the baby girl to whom she has just given birth, be also condemned to death by exposition. The bitter trial scene grows organically from the earlier scenes, in which, if I remember correctly, some cuts of subsidiary characters’ parts, and Orlando James’ engrossing performance keep the motivation of the events within Leontes’ consciousness. Real-time projections of Leontes and Hermione as they address the court gave the trial scene a nightmarish quality, making it flow directly out of what came before. We are still inside Leontes’ head, a gruesome place to be, where the delusional king engenders tragic miscarriages of justice which become tangible in the death sentences meted out to his innocent queen and infant daughter. Within minutes the word of Apollo’s oracle arrives, actually shocking Hermione to “death.” Leontes will soon learn that his repentance is too late.

Orlando James as Leontes, Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Hermione. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Orlando James as Leontes, Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Hermione. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

The trial scene is the crisis of the tragedy. It brings the emotional rhetoric of Leontes, Hermione, and Paulina to a fever pitch at the height of their characters’ trajectories. Joy Richardson’s Paulina is the sober one among the three, bearing personal loss (the departure of her husband, Antigonus, whom, we soon learn, she will never see again.), as she acts to prevent the fulfillment of her king’s tragic errors. From her solid strength, Paulina is able to tell lies with the most intense feeling and expression. Her deception makes part of the conclusion possible. Meanwhile, Antigonus, arrived in Bohemia with the baby, unknowingly takes care of the rest in turning the infant over to chance “upon the earth of its right father,” whom he believes is Polixenes. In the midst of an oncoming storm of great violence Antigonus, not the baby, falls prey to a wild beast and she is taken up by a shepherd, who will raise her for the next sixteen years. It seems desirable for Antigonus’ encounter with the bear, his final moment on stage, to be serious, followed by the black humor of the rustics’ response to the attack. Mssrs. Donnellan and Ormerod managed to postpone the laughter to the appropriate moment by showing the bear in a genuinely fearsome projection, in a way that was clear enough without being realistic. It is significant that this difficult scene was Shakespeare’s invention, not a detail he found in his sources.

Peter Moreton, Eleanor McLoughlin, Sam Woolf. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Peter Moreton, Eleanor McLoughlin, Sam Woolf.
Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

An allegorical chorus-figure, Time, begins Act IV with a traversal of the passing sixteen years, one rhymed couplet for each, delivered with elegance and spirit by Grace Andrews, who also played Emilia. We meet the adolescent children of Leontes and Polixenes—Perdita and Florizel—and re-encounter Polixenes and Camillo at the sheep-shearing, at which Perdita is the Queen of the Feast. The festival is the occasion for disguise, or, in Perdita’s case, transformation, in which her true nature as a king’s daughter shines forth. Polixenes and Camillo disguise themselves, rather thinly in this production, to attend the revels incognito. Prince Florizel has dressed down, like an ordinary shepherd, whereas Perdita’s garlands reflect something transcendent.

These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Does give a life — no shepherdess, but Flora
Peering in April’s front. This your sheep-shearing
Is as a meeting of the petty gods,
And you the queen on’t.

Sir, my gracious lord,
To chide at your extremes it not becomes me.
Oh pardon that I name them! Your high self,
The gracious mark o’th’land, you have obscured
With a swain’s wearing, and me, poor lowly maid,
Most goddess-like pranked up! But that our feasts
In every mess have folly and the feeders
Digest it with a custom, I should blush
To see you so attired, swoon I think,
To show myself a glass.

With currents like these flowing through it, the sheep-shearing, which could be taken as the comic counterpart of the trial scene, balancing destructive falsehood with healing truth, there is indeed enough substance for it to float on its own, but in past productions I have seen, even successful ones, the directors were perhaps vulnerable to a certain self-consciousness in their treatment of what is, in the context of the antique date of the story, a pagan festival, interpreted by Shakespeare in the guise of the rural celebrations he knew from his youth in Warwickshire. Donnellan solved the problem brilliantly, I think, by looking over to his native Ireland, where, today, people seem perfectly comfortable with celebrating ancient fairs and festivals in a modern way. He boldly updated the sheep-shearing, and the spectacle was both convincing and vastly entertaining, complete with some rather good rock settings for Autolycus’ songs, brilliantly performed by Ryan Donaldson, another power in the cast. The scoundrel’s activities at the festival included a hilarious touchy-feely interview session for a very local television station, enhanced with live projections, like the trial scene.

Ryan Donaldson, Sam McArdle, Joy Richardson. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Ryan Donaldson, Sam McArdle, Joy Richardson.
Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Leontes has, from the moment of reading the oracular truth sixteen years before, owned his responsibility for the destruction of his family, for which he pays, most publicly by his lack of an heir to his throne, but inwardly by his killing of an excellent wife, whom he loved dearly. Perdita and Florizel, fleeing his father, who disapproves of their marriage, visit Leontes in the hope that he may help reconcile his old friend with the fait accompli. Eleanor McLoughlin played Perdita as if she had entered into Perdita body and soul. As Queen of the Feast she asserts herself in the blunt, forthright manner of the young mistress of a peasant household. In this her delivery was energetic and pleasantly vulgar, charmingly vulgar, rather, as she made the most of her status among the shepherds, while letting some rays of her regal birth shine through. After her marriage to Florizel, this vanished quickly enough, as she returned to the society of her own people, eventually recognized as the Princess of Sicily.

Hermione returns to life and to Leontes in the form of something inanimate, but lifelike, a statue in her likeness. Much is made of the skill of the artist, named as Giulio Romano, and his godlike ability to feign nature and life. As Leontes observes the statue and expresses his response to Paulina, as his awareness plumbs his emotions, the idea of the supremely skilled artist gives way to notions of magic:


As she lived peerless,
So her dead likeness I do well believe
Excels whatever yet you looked upon,
Or hand of man hath done. Therefore I keep it
Lonely, apart. But here it is; prepare
To see the life as lively mocked as ever
Still sleep mocked death.
[Drawing aside curtain to reveal Hermione as a statue]
Behold, and say ’tis well.
I like your silence; it the more shows off
Your wonder, but yet speak. First you, my liege,
Comes it not something near?

Her natural posture.
Chide me, dear stone, that I may say indeed
Thou art Hermione—or rather, thou art she
In thy not chiding, for she was as tender
As infancy and grace. But yet, Paulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems.

O, not by much.

So much the more our carver’s excellence,
Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
As she lived now.

As now she might have done,
So much to my good comfort as it is
Now piercing to my soul. O, thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty—warm life,
As now it coldly stands—when first I wooed her.
I am ashamed; does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it? O royal piece!
There’s magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance and
From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee.

Both the art and the magic are deceptions, and Paulina is a liar from beginning to end, although a benevolent one—at this moment essentially a showman, creating an illusion necessary for Leontes to accept a reality she has created:

Either forbear,
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement; if you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think—
Which I protest against—I am assisted
By wicked powers.

What you can make her do,
I am content to look on; what to speak,
I am content to hear, for ’tis as easy
To make her speak as move.

It is required
You do awake your faith; then, all stand still.
Or those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.

No foot shall stir.

Music! Awake her! Strike!
[Music sounds]
[To Hermione] ‘Tis time! Descend! Be stone no more! Approach!
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come!

The invocation of magic, then faith, echoing the language of the New Testament, culminates in Paulina’s call for music.2 What Paulina and Hermione have done over the sixteen years—what intention and effort they have spent—are of little matter. What is important for him—and Paulina has prepared him for it—is the presence of Hermione, whom he believed he had killed. The path to the future has been cleared.

Once again Donnellan and Ormerod have worked their own magic in this scene. The people seemed to descend into the darkness of a catacomb in entering Paulina’s gallery, where the miraculous “statue” is kept apart from the rest of her collection. Once again, I was drawn along with full involvement in their illusion. I was infected with Paulina’s “faith.” The simple crate-like structure that served so well as the shepherd’s house and other space was now a holy chapel of a secular sort.

Direction and design of this understanding and imagination—an imagination so strong that it can dispense with distracting ornament—that made this production the most persuasive and involving performance of The Winter’s Tale I have seen—not to mention the superb cast, some of whom I regrettably have not been able to praise individually. Orlando James’ Leontes was a masterpiece of psychological penetration and empathy, as well as of the material gifts an actor might possess. James has developed a voice of particular beauty, which made his lines resound in the classical tradition, and he uses it with a sensitivity that made have made the work of the late Richard Pasco and Ronald Pickup such a joy, but James can also inject the harsh edges of a disturbed mind into his voice, attaining an extraordinary range of expression.

This was not quite a minimal production—but perhaps, given the excesses of earlier productions. Paring everything down to the essentials (I was delighted to see the royal characters without crowns and ermine.) did wonders for this difficult play, and one can only be grateful to Cheek by Jowl and BAM for the opportunity to see it.

  1. for a fuller discussion of the bear issue, see this author’s review of the Bridge Project’s production of The Winter’s Tale.
  2. Her promise to make the statue move may go beyond the sculptural aesthetic of the earlier part of the scene and reflect the great interest and accomplishment in automata—statues that move by clockwork—in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
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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