The Winter’s Tale – January 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 29th January 2013

So far, the productions we’ve seen this year have been almost universally excellent, and tonight this continued with a stunning interpretation of The Winter’s Tale. We weren’t at all keen on Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar a few years back, her Taming last year had some good points and some less good aspects, but this production is sheer brilliance throughout. Bearing in mind this was the fifth preview (press night is tomorrow) and the actors always improve with practice, this looks set to be one of the RSC’s hit shows – good job we’ve already booked a second helping.

Our seats tonight were on the middle aisle of the centre front stalls, close enough to piss on from the stage (which one of the dancers did during the traditional sheep-shearing clog dance – I hope it was just water). There were a few aspects of the staging which may not have been visible to everyone, but on the whole the production seemed to be pretty egalitarian – I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences on that one.

I’ll go through the set changes first before  describing the action, as I’ve found it a bit complicated to merge the two. The time period was early Victorian, and the opening set looked more like Illyria than Sicilia. The deep blue Mediterranean sparkled brightly in the distance on the back wall (or screen). Rocky outcrops jutted out (up) from the shore, and from the suggestion of a balcony terrace in the left-hand corner, the stage was clearly an open-air space, with a circular raised dais five steps up from the rest of the stage. A bench with a carved back curved round the rear of the dais. Brightly coloured rugs covered the front of the stage, and piles of cushions, a crown, a book, a bowl of fruit, etc. were placed strategically around. A hookah was brought on for the opening scene, when the Sicilian court lay around the stage in a state of stupor during Camillo and Archidamus’s initial exchange.

After the opening scenes, the rugs, cushions and other paraphernalia were carried off and the whole atmosphere changed. The stage was relatively bare, while the video image at the back showed a close-up of some waves rippling at the water’s edge, in sombre colours. Leontes and his men wore black and white, and although the queen and her women were still in bright colours initially, the mood had darkened. The trial scene was (deliberately) reminiscent of Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution, and by now the colour had completely gone. Only Mamillius’s knight’s tabard gave a soft glow of heraldic red and blue to point up Leontes’ loss even more, when the nursemaid brought it on with the news of his son’s death.

After Leontes’ resolution to mourn his lost wife and children, he prostrated himself on the dais, which gradually rose up and became the top of a tower. He was still in a spotlight – I didn’t notice when it went out but it had done so by the interval – while the picture behind the tower changed to a storm-tossed sea with a sailing ship visible on the right hand side. The bear was CGI’d into the storm scene, which looked most peculiar as it was standing in the middle of the waves, and rushed across the screen to chase the old man off the stage. The young shepherd came on along the right hand walkway and stood watching all of this, then after he left the screen changed to show the sailors drowning in the ocean. When the two shepherds met up to discuss their day, the stormy sea was back on the screen, but noticeably without the ship.

For the interval a sheet was lowered in front of the tower – we’d seen it earlier during the director’s talk – and to continue Lucy’s liking for bedsheets this one looked like part of a mattress cover, with holes where the stitching would have been. It showed an image of the tower with the tide rising and falling and a full moon arcing one way while the constellations rotated in the other direction. This evidently took the place of Time, so the second half opened with Polixenes and Camillo talking at the front of the stage. The rest of Bohemia wasn’t clearly visible at this point, but we had seen a deckchair or two being placed on the stage in front of the sheet during the interval. Sure enough, when the lights came up for the first full-on Bohemian country scene, the sheet rose and we could see the whole layout. This Bohemia looked like an industrial Northern coastal town with a pier (bottom left on the screen), some ocean and a lot of dark sky, a tower with a circular sewage pipe running round it and some hungover locals who were sleeping in the deckchairs or on the ground – a mirror image of the Sicilian scene at the start. It was slightly bizarre to have a sheep-shearing festival in this context, but I was enjoying myself so much that I’m prepared to allow artistic licence on this one.

Another interesting point – Leontes was still visible on top of the tower, now in an orangey robe and looking pretty rough. It was a reminder that while Bohemia was all fun and jollity (for the most part) the suffering was still going on in Sicilia. For the final scenes back in Leontes’ court, the tower turned round and showed the inner spiral staircase with a platform part way down. The picture at the back was of calmer waves, rippling gently across the screen. The rotating tower was also used to reveal the statue, initially hidden behind a white curtain which was shaped like a tent. I didn’t notice if the screen had changed for the final dance – crying too much, apart from anything else – so I’ll have to watch out next time.

The costumes were as described above for the Sicilian court, while the nursemaids wore grey uniforms. The Bohemian court was more casual in tone, with both Polixenes and Camillo wearing suits. The ‘country’ folk generally wore rougher clothes; the shepherds had oilskins for their first appearance and smarter suits for the later scenes. The clog dancers had red velvet shorts and white shirts – very natty – and Autolycus wore a variety of clothes which I’ll describe as I go.

Now for the performance itself. When the play started, the three main characters were sprawled together in the middle of the stage, although I didn’t spot this immediately. I found the opening exchange between Archidamus and Camillo a little hard to follow tonight; the lines weren’t as clear as I would have liked. As they discussed the young prince, Mamillius obligingly ran on stage and hid under Leontes’ dressing gown to escape the pursuing nursemaids; they left once Camillo had pointed out where Mamillius was hiding, presumably satisfied that the young prince was in safe hands.

The three royal folk on the central cushions woke up just before Polixenes’ first line, and Leontes and Hermione had a long kiss while Polixenes was talking. All was going well until Leontes’ sudden onset of jealousy. On the line “too hot”, the lighting changed and the court almost froze while Leontes spoke of his feelings to us. Hermione and Polixenes were slightly to the left of the stage, and continued to move in slow motion, with Leontes free to move around in front of them. The stage was awash with red light, and the screen at the back changed to reflect this, with the colours becoming garish and unnatural. I felt this was very effective, and emphasised both the abruptness of Leontes’ madness and how dangerous this delusion might be.

After Leontes’ talk with Camillo, and Camillo’s conversation with Polixenes, all of which were very clear, Hermione came back on with Mamillius, the two nursemaids and some of her staff. The nursemaids teased Mamillius as they prepared him for bed, and Hermione went to the steps to pour a couple of drinks before taking Mamillius over to some cushions at the front of the stage to hear his story. As they sat there, the lights came up on the back of the stage where Leontes and his remaining lords were discussing Polixenes and Camillo’s escape. Leontes strode forward at the appropriate moment and snatched Mamillius away from Hermione. During their argument he slapped Hermione in the face, which was pretty shocking, even though it was apt.

As the lords exited they removed all of the rugs and cushions apart from one lot to the right of the stage. I think Leontes stayed on the platform at the back, lying down so as not to get in the way of the following scene at the prison. Paulina was very insistent about seeing Hermione or one of her women, and although Amelia indicated that the queen had also thought of sending the new baby to the king, this time I was aware it was a very risky option.

This scene was brisk and soon over, and then we saw a video of Leontes falling into the water prior to the real king waking up from a bad dream and complaining about his lot. Paulina arrived wearing a long black coat inside which she held the baby so that it wasn’t visible to begin with. The men were very wary of her, especially her husband, and we enjoyed that part. When she did reveal the baby, she then laid it down on the few cushions which had been left on stage. They all clustered round the little girl as Paulina described her likeness to Leontes, and started grinning those soppy grins people have when they see a cute little bundle of babyhood. Leontes had to climb over the back of the bench to get away from Paulina as she pursued him round the stage with her arguments, which was funny, but I accepted Leontes’ comment that if he had been a tyrant she wouldn’t have dared to speak out as she did. I noticed that one of the courtiers, probably Antigonus, actually sat on the bench while the king was standing; surely a breach of etiquette, but perhaps they just wanted to underline how easy-going Leontes had been up to this point.

Once Paulina was gone, Leontes rounded on Antigonus, and only the support of the other lords saved him from having to throw the baby on a fire. Leontes’ line “I am a feather for every wind that blows” was quite accurate I felt, although the strongest wind was the one blowing through his brain and forcing all sense out of it.

Once the court had left, Cleomenes and Dion came on, dressed like Victorian explorers in tweeds and plus fours, carrying knapsacks and the like. They talked of the wonders they had seen, planning how to report them, and completed each other’s sentences as they did so. They were both uplifted by their journey and hopeful of a positive outcome for Hermione, and it was nice to see these minor characters given such strong characterisations for once.

The trial scene began with four young men being dragged on to the stage, bound and gagged, while an executioner with a huge sword took up his position on the platform. This was meant to represent Anne Boleyn’s trail, though if you didn’t know that it might have seemed a bit strange. The idea was that these men had been tortured to obtain confessions that the queen had been sleeping around – bit pointless in this play as Hermione has only been accused of one adulteress affair, and the man in question is now far away, but this director likes symbolic imagery even if it gets in the way of the performance at times. Not that we were affected by it either way, but the scene works perfectly well without this extra window dressing. (Now if these good-looking young men hadn’t been wearing their shirts, I might have had a different response.)

For the early part of this scene, and the section with the oracle, Leontes sat on the steps at the front of the stage. Hermione came on and initially stood on the first step of the platform. She was wearing a sombre black dress, similar in style to Paulina’s. Everyone looked on edge from the start of this scene, and it didn’t get any easier as it played out.

Hermione’s delivery at the start was a bit jerky, but I took this to represent her fatigue and emotional distress. She became smoother during her argument with Leontes, and like Paulina she followed him around the stage to make her points. At “Therefore proceed”, she sat down on the steps and moved her hair out of the way of her neck to make life easier for the executioner, who raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow. She then interrupted her own execution to deliver the rest of her speech, calling on the oracle to clear her name before she died. The courtier charged with handling this was very eager to get the job done, and brought a sword forward (not the executioner’s) so that Cleomenes and Dion could swear their oath, kiss the sword, and the oracle could be read. I don’t remember hearing Hermione’s lines about her father.

There was great relief all round at first when the oracle was read out, especially by the lord doing the reading. I thought there may have been a little puzzlement when it came to the last bit, but maybe I imagined it.  Only Leontes remained unmoved, sitting on the front steps and considering his options. His choice made, it was only seconds later that one of the nursemaids ran on stage to tell him of his son’s death, holding out the red and blue tabard which Mamillius had worn in the opening scene. Leontes was so overcome that he collapsed and rolled down the steps of the platform, lying unconscious for a bit before continuing the scene. His reformation was instantaneous, and he readily accepted Paulina’s chiding.

At the end of the scene, Leontes stood on the platform and it started to rise up, as previously described. As he stripped off his clothes, the tower finished its upwards journey and Antigonus and the seaman came on stage and sheltered at its base. After the seaman left, Antigonus placed the wicker crib he was carrying down towards the front of the stage, and told us of his dream. He put the necessary items in the basket with the baby and as he went back to the ship, the bear came out of the water and made towards him. Any killing took place out of our sight, and then the video of the seamen drowning came on screen, followed by the storm.

The old shepherd arrived pushing his bike, and left it lying on the right side of the stage before launching into his speech. He walked back and forth across the stage and cast several curious glances at the wicker basket before checking it out and finding the baby. The young shepherd’s description of the ship and bear scenarios seemed a little unnecessary tonight as we’d just seen it all on the screens. As they left, the young shepherd took the bike with him, while his father carried off the basket and the box with the gold.

I’ve already described the interval setup with the sheet and the images, and the second half started with Polixenes talking to Camillo at the front of the stage. The dialogue was clear, and Camillo was, as usual, unhappy with the idea of a disguise.

Before the lights came up, the actors bestowed themselves about the place, echoing the first scene. The young shepherd and his two women were the threesome in the middle of the stage, wrapped around each other in an intimate way. As Autolycus crept on stage, singing his song, he was accompanied by the only other person who was awake – the accordion player who stood or sat by the tower steps. Leontes was still up on top of the tower, in his orange robes.

Autolycus was dressed in a long black coat with a scruffy shirt and trousers. He carried a large umbrella-like structure; after he planted it in the centre of the stage, he opened it up to form a small tent with side openings and a small window. While he told us of his naughty ways, he took a bottle of beer and an ice cream from some of the sleepers in the deck chairs, along with some other items. When the young shepherd woke up, Autolycus hid in his tent, and when he realised there would be rich pickings from the young man, he snuck out and took sunglasses and half a fishing rod (he broke it in two) from the sleeper on the left. Telling the shepherd he was blind, he easily filched his purse from a back pocket before insisting he was fine.

Florizel and Perdita entered, with most of the sleepers still on the stage. Her accent was a bit strong at first so I missed some of her dialogue, but their love for each other shone through. When the guests for the feast arrived, the music started up as well and all the sleepers woke up. Polixenes and Camillo, in disguise, were part of the throng, and Perdita’s welcome to them was lively and funnier than usual, with her references to middle age coming across as quite cheeky. There was a dance (not the clog dance yet) and Mopsa and Dorcas began fighting over the young shepherd. This fight was turning into the main event, with some of the guests sitting down to watch and others trying to hold the women down, when the news of the pedlar came and a truce broke out.

Autolycus was also in disguise, with a grey beard and wearing eastern attire in the form of baggy leggings. He came out of the tent playing an accordion, but it was actually the accordionist inside the tent we were hearing. When Autolycus stopped, the musician carried on, and Autolycus had to tell him to be quiet. He then returned to the tent and started to speak through the window, but the accordionist kept playing which annoyed him, so he broke off to tell the man to stop.

The song was good fun, with Mopsa and Dorcas singing with Autolycus and really getting into their parts (and even some of his!). The young shepherd got jealous then, and dragged them away to buy goods from Autolycus, who followed them off stage.

Instead of a satyr dance they had a clog dance. Florizel took part, though he joined in late as he was still putting his clogs on, with Perdita’s help. He was dragged into the middle of the group to do a little solo, and did it well enough, obviously his way of earning respect in that culture. Autolycus came on with a camera on a tripod, and the dancers tried to freeze in a dancing pose for a picture. He took the cover off the lens and they stood, and they stood, and we laughed, and they stood, until they couldn’t stand any longer and collapsed on the stage, at which point Autolycus removed the camera.

Florizel’s love for Perdita led him to promise marriage to her in public, and when Polixenes became more forceful in challenging Florizel to tell his father, the other dancers grabbed him and took him round to the back of the tower. With a quick change of clothes, he soon came out of the pipe at the front looking extremely messy, but once he revealed himself as the king, no one felt inclined to comment. The rest of the dancers scarpered double quick, leaving Florizel, Perdita and the old shepherd to face Polixenes’ wrath, with Camillo as a bystander. To even things up with Leontes, Polixenes also hit his son several times before rounding on Perdita and her supposed father.

Camillo’s guidance to the young couple was fine, and then Autolycus returned with his tent and his ill-gotten gains. His description of his purse-picking was very well done, and as he talked he removed his turban, placed it on the ground, gradually drew out the purses he had taken and poured the coins into the turban. He was very wary of Camillo’s approach, but soon realised what was going on. He, Florizel and Perdita all ended up in the tent, changing clothes. When they emerged, Florizel still had his red velvet shorts on, but had Autolycus’s black coat over it, Perdita had the baggy leggings on under her dress, and Autolycus was down to his long johns. Camillo’s line “Nay, you shall have no hat” covered Autolycus’s reluctance to part with the (extremely valuable) turban, and Florizel and Perdita then left.

When the shepherds arrived, Autolycus moved his tent over to the back left corner of the stage, and hid in there to listen to their conversation. Polixenes’ white coat had been discarded on the steps earlier, and Autolycus snuck out of the tent to grab it and put it on, tucking his false beard into one of the pockets. With the coat on, he lounged against the tower and made his first enquiries of the shepherds, “How now, rustics, whither are you bound?” He adopted a posher accent, and with some exaggerated mannerisms gave us a number of laughs as he conned the shepherds (to their own good as it turned out).

Next the tower turned back round and we could see its innards, with the spiral staircase and landing over half way up. Leontes was still on the top, and Paulina with Cleomenes and Dion were below. When Florizel and Perdita arrived, it struck me as a little unlikely that they hadn’t changed clothes, although they had tidied themselves up a bit. As Perdita walked beside Florizel to the centre of the stage before turning and bowing to Leontes, I was aware that she was doing her best to mimic Florizel’s manners and appear like a princess. Leontes had come down to the landing to welcome them, keen to see the son of the man whom he’d wronged so many years ago.

The next scene had the lords and Autolycus recounting the details of Polixenes’ arrival and the discovery of Perdita’s true identity. The lords were smoking cigars and were clearly celebrating – I think there was at least one bottle of champagne on view. When the shepherds arrived, I had thought they might have had fresh outfits to reflect their higher status, but no change in that department apart from gold chains around their necks.

For the reunion scene, the tower turned round again (it had rotated back after the previous scene, so that the statue could be set up) and another tent, a white gauzy one this time, was suspended from the landing; we could dimly see a shape inside it. A nun was also present and drew back the curtain to reveal the ‘statue’, while the other characters spaced themselves round the stage. Paulina stayed by the steps, and had to move fast to stop Perdita and then Leontes from touching the statue.

The awakening scene was very moving – I couldn’t quite see it clearly for some reason (sniff) – and I noticed that Polixenes and Hermione wouldn’t look at each other; Leontes had to take their hands to bring them together. The impending nuptials of Camillo and Paulina were just as bizarre as ever – just when did Leontes have time to ”partly know his mind” – and they ended with another dance, occasionally doing some slow motion moves, and with the rest of the cast joining in. There was clapping and slapping of thighs, to echo the clog dance, and hand to hand moves to echo the court dances at the start. The final image was of Florizel and Perdita spotlit together in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the others; I noticed that Hermione had to kneel down so as not to block the audience’s view of the young couple. It was a fitting ending, putting the emphasis on the next generation, and we applauded mightily.

I’ve left my notes on the director’s pre-show talk till after the performance notes this time. Lucy Bailey had worked as an assistant director on a previous RSC production, and had taken against the play as a result. Apparently Michael Boyd is very good at ear-tickling, because she found herself agreeing to direct this production anyway, and then went through the usual process of discovering how wrong she’d been when she actually read the text.

She wanted to bring out the happiness of the original Sicilian scenes, before it all goes horribly wrong, while for the Bohemian scenes she wanted to emphasise the working-class nature of the characters. Hence the way the Bohemian ‘rural’ scenes looked industrial and the Sicilian scenes looked verdant and lush. Threesomes were another important aspect of the play for her, and she wanted to show Polixenes’ jealousy as well as Leontes’, hence the violence towards Florizel.

She was happy to give Pearce Quigley some licence to play around with Autolycus’ part, as she felt that was what the clowns in Shakespeare’s day would have done, plus they updated some of the language to reflect Victorian sheep-shearing practices. There was more which I don’t recall now, but overall the talk accurately reflected the performance we saw, and didn’t hinder our enjoyment in any way.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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