The Winter’s Tale – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Paul Miller

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th October 2013

A creditable production of this play, and worth the trip to see it. I had the usual problems with moist eyes at the end, which is as it should be, and there were a number of laughs throughout the evening. We spotted some interesting interpretations, and overall it was a good ensemble performance. Not up to the standard of their Othello or Macbeth, but still deserving a fuller auditorium than they got tonight.

The set was nice and simple. There was a wooden panelled wall at the back of the stage with wooden floorboards stretching away from it to create a rectangular floor space. A wooden hand cart sat in the front left corner of this stage at the start, piled high with luggage – this Polixenes really was on the point of leaving. Around all this the stage was painted white, with a textured surface giving the impression of snow, highly appropriate. On either side of the back wall there was a doorway in the white surface, and white steps led off down each forward entrance. Once the lights came up I could see that there were cracks in the wooden panels at the back which allowed some of the light to shine through, all suggestive of wear and tear and disintegration. That was it at the start, and apart from some items being brought on as needed, the stage was largely bare throughout.

The costumes were interesting too. We guessed that the early scenes were in Edwardian style, but the military uniforms seemed to have echoes going back to Waterloo. The later Sicilian scenes had moved on to the 1930s, which again fitted with starting the play in the Edwardian era. Bohemia had a wide range of styles, but given the nature of the scenes most of the outfits were rustic or countrified. With a bare stage, the other aspects of a design can’t help us to place the period accurately. Fortunately we had a good view throughout from the front of the stalls, to the right of the centre.

Camillo entered with Archidamus, the former in a long black coat, the latter in military uniform. Archidamus indicated the luggage cart when referencing Polixenes’ planned departure, and the cart was soon moved off stage. The royal party came into view in the doorway, and stood there chatting for a bit. Mamillius came forward and did some sword practice in the middle of the stage while Archidamus and Camillo continued their conversation by discussing him; played by Thomas Barker tonight, this was a very assured performance. Mamillius also wore a military uniform which was a scaled-down version of his father’s. To round this off, he even had a doll wearing a similar uniform tucked into his belt. This was the toy he played with later on after being instructed to “go play” by his father.

Once Leontes, Hermione and Polixenes came forward onto the stage, Camillo and Archidamus left them alone. The strong relationship between the two men came across very clearly, so it was no surprise when Leontes took Mamillius to a back corner of the stage to chat with him, leaving Hermione alone to persuade Polixenes to stay. As a result, Leontes heard only parts of their conversation, and these snippets were the trigger for his jealous fit. At one point, holding Mamillius by the head, Leontes’ forefingers were pointing up on either side, looking like horns. He kept glancing at his wife and his friend, and when he heard Hermione’s lines “If you first sinned with us…”, it was clear that he misinterpreted this light banter as a confession of adultery, confirming his sudden suspicion. Mamillius was affected somewhat by his father’s mood, and kept glancing at him to see what was going on.

Daniel Lapaine’s Leontes wasn’t as good at the poetic verse as I would have liked; he was fine with the conversational dialogue and I warmed to his performance more in the final scenes, but at this point I found myself wishing that Polixenes and Leontes had been cast the other way round. (That might have worked better given the supposed likeness between Polixenes and Florizel too.) For now I was at least getting the gist of two relationships gone sour, without warning or reason.

Polixenes had to get really stroppy with Camillo to get the information from him, and after they left, a chaise was brought on front left for Hermione to take her rest. Mamillius really showed his talent in this scene, delivering his lines clearly and with plenty of character as well. While he told Hermione the story, sitting beside her on the sofa, Leontes and three lords came on behind them and played out their short scene before Leontes burst in on the others to take his son away. Leontes was so deluded that he even jumped to the conclusion that Camillo had been hired by Polixenes before his visit to be his confederate. (He’s far gone, far gone.)

One of the waiting women took the boy off, while the other, Emilia, stayed behind to help her mistress. Mind you, Hermione didn’t need much help; she was remarkably resilient in the face of absurd and dangerous accusations, and took herself off to prison with her head held high.

Antigonus was noticeable for his uniform, which was a silver version of Leontes’ gold one, with swirls of braid embellishing the jacket front. Leontes grabbed him by the nose on “You smell this business…”, but it didn’t stop the man from standing up to his king. The other lord also spoke up for Hermione at first, but we could see he was more prepared to accommodate Leontes’ lunacy, and when Leontes informed them that he had sent to Delphi for confirmation by the oracle, it was noticeable that only the other lord said “Well done, my lord”, while Antigonus maintained a stiff, disapproving silence.

Nice to see an older actress given the chance to play Paulina, and Barbara Marten did a good job of showing us Paulina’s no-nonsense approach to problem-solving. After the prison scene, a large throne was brought on and placed centre stage while a chandelier was lowered down to create a formal room in the palace. Leontes was showing off his nasty side, and then Paulina turned up with the baby wrapped in her shawl, not immediately visible. She gave Leontes what-for, and her threat to use her nails on anyone who attempted to evict her was taken seriously by the lords, much to the audience’s amusement.

Leontes himself found a lot of humour in her speech, laughing every time she mentioned the “good queen” – he was certainly giving us a good villain at this point. When Paulina placed the baby front and centre, the little bundle gave a few cries, and as usual the lords went a bit gooey when they saw the little darling, though not as much as some have. There wasn’t a laugh when Antigonus pointed out the consequence of hanging men who couldn’t control their wife’s tongue, a fault of the delivery rather than a dull audience, but otherwise they finished the scene well. Leontes drew one of the lord’s swords at some point and used it for Antigonus’ oath, and again there was a little bit of crying from the bundle when he picked up the baby to take it away.

The news of Cleomenes and Dion’s return soon followed, and as they walked on to the stage at the front, discussing the wonders of their journey, the rest of the stage was kept dark while the furniture was rearranged for the trial scene. When the lights came up again, Leontes had donned his crown and a red cloak, clearly looking forward to ‘good’ news. He sat on his throne, which was now set diagonally to the left of the stage, and his courtiers sat in the chairs behind him. Then Leontes got up again, making the rest of the court rise. Then he sat down again; they all followed his lead, but kept a wary eye on him in case he felt like leaping to his feet once more. This was amusing, and he added to it by being impatient with the officer whose job it was to run proceedings. “Produce the prisoner” was said as if the man should already have called her in.

Hermione was in a simple black dress when she came on stage. Her women and Paulina were sent to the front right corner of the stage, while she was further back, near the throne. Again Leontes was impatient with the officer over reading the indictment, and again he laughed at Hermione’s opening lines, as if he couldn’t believe her bare-faced cheek in denying the charges which he knew she was guilty of! Hermione stood her ground well, and there was no reaction tonight to the news that her young baby had been “cast out”, either from Hermione or Paulina. Claire Price handled this part of Hermione’s role very well, I thought, and the contrast between her innocence and Leontes’ mad jealousy stood out strongly.

Cleomenes and Dion swore their oath on the same sword which Leontes had taken earlier and on which Antigonus had sworn his oath. There was general relief at the oracle’s verdict, except from Leontes, whose abrupt repudiation of the oracle’s words led immediately to the news of his son’s death and the queen’s collapse. Leontes’ about-turn was so quick he probably had friction burns. He knelt to make his apology to Apollo, and the remaining lords were astonished to hear him confess that he had suborned Camillo to commit murder. I was reminded of Mad Margaret in Richard III when Paulina came back to inform Leontes of Hermione’s death; her ranting was along similar lines to Margaret’s, and equally as fluent. (Plus they both go on about death a lot.)

Off to Bohemia now, and the set change was done nice and quickly. The back wall rose up to reveal a white expanse with a large doorway centre back. The chairs and throne were whisked off stage, the chandelier was lifted up, and one lone tree was brought on and placed back right to set the scene. Antigonus left his precious bundle near the front of the stage, and as he was talking to it we could see the bear creeping on behind him and round to the left. When Antigonus did see the bear, he ran off to the back with the bear following, and was mercifully killed off stage. The old shepherd was entertaining, and after his son had filled us in on the fates of Antigonus and the ship’s crew, father and son headed off stage with the various bundles, looking round on the word “secrecy” to make sure they weren’t being watched. The son then left to bury what was left of Antigonus, and they took the interval.

Not much was done to the stage during the interval either. The tree was taken away and a white screen dropped down behind the doorway, that’s all. Antigonus was also Time, minus his jacket, and when he mentioned Florizel the background lights changed colour from blue to orange, giving a warmer feel to the scene and picking up the orange tones in the flooring. After this, Camillo and Polixenes had their little disagreement over Camillo’s application for annual leave. Having agreed to visit the shepherd whose daughter was distracting Florizel from his princely duties, Camillo’s reaction to the idea of disguise suggested he might be up for it for once.

Autolycus came down the stairs to our right, playing his ukulele and singing. He was dressed in scruffy clothes, and when we finally decided to applaud his song, he took off his hat, bowed, and then carried on holding it out in case anyone felt charitable enough to give him some money. It was a good start, and Kier Charles kept this performance very lively for the rest of the play. He even sniffed the air before the young shepherd arrived on stage, senses ever keen to detect the next victim.

The young shepherd was a sight to see, with very shaggy red trousers and a floral shirt. Autolycus fell flat while the young man ran through his shopping list, and then launched himself into the ‘robbed man’ con, filching the young shepherd’s purse with ease once he’d got himself the right way round. They didn’t make as much of this scene as some productions, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

Florizel and Perdita were a fetching pair, and for once, Perdita didn’t have a strong ‘country’ accent which helped with the dialogue. As they came to the end of their scene, the rest of the rustics began to set up the stage for the sheep-shearing feast, bringing on a low cart with beer barrels and another cart which I couldn’t see so well, as my view was blocked by an enormous sheep’s head on wheels which was brought on and placed centre stage. It was an impressive sight.

Polixenes and Camillo weren’t so impressive, but their disguises did fit well with the agricultural theme. Camillo was wearing a white smock, leggings and a hat, while Polixenes was in plus fours, a white shirt and waistcoat and had a sheepskin draped round his shoulders. They both wore masks which covered the top half of their faces and had large red noses which drooped forward. Several of the cast wore similar masks, but the ones with dialogue were bare-faced. I realised during Perdita’s greeting to the newcomers that it’s Polixenes himself who recommends the mingling of different ‘classes’ of flower and Perdita who stands firm against interbreeding. She’ll see things differently in a short while, as will he.

The sheep’s head was moved back to make space for the dance, which was fairly brief and included some singing as well. Florizel and Perdita came to sit on the front right corner to continue their billing and cooing during Autolycus’ scene; they were very close to us, so it was hard not to notice their behaviour. Autolycus was wearing a red coat with lots of bits of paper tied to it with red ribbon; these were the songs he was selling. His cart was up high on long legs with wheels, and there were lots of small drawers. He took out a tiny ukulele from one of the drawers for the three part song. The young shepherd became quite jealous of Autolycus during this number, although the women weren’t as friendly with him as some we’ve seen; even so, the young shepherd hustled them off pretty quickly to make some more purchases, leaving Florizel and Perdita on stage still enjoying each other’s’ company.

After Florizel’s rash proposal to Perdita, Polixenes soon revealed himself, and all seemed lost. Perdita hugged her (presumed) father, who was naturally distraught at the potential consequences of his daughter’s relationship with a prince. During Camillo’s speech with Florizel, the other shepherds began removing the various carts from the back of the stage, but the enormous sheep’s head was left in the middle. Mopsa and Dorcas came back on, and stayed with Perdita until Florizel drew her aside. I did wonder at Camillo’s promise to have them “royally appointed”; most productions leave the young couple in whatever disguises they happen to be wearing when they leave the stage.

However first we have to deal with Autolycus and the shepherds. When Autolycus came back on, his coat was missing all the bits of paper – business had clearly been good. The picking of pockets had also been profitable, and he stuck several purses into various parts of his coat. When Camillo called him over, he put on a grey beard to disguise himself, and was naturally reluctant to part with his coat, given the amount of money it was concealing. However he had to give in eventually – that Camillo is so persistent – and took a few moments to stuff the purses down the front of his trousers. His conversation with the shepherds was entertaining, and after they all left, the sheep’s head was finally removed and we returned to Sicily.

The change of set was fairly quick, just needing the back wall and the chandelier to be dropped down and a change back to the colder blue lighting. Leontes was greying at the temples, and seemed much more mature than before, with a quieter, more dignified grief than usual. When Florizel and Perdita arrived, they stood in the doorway (in properly posh clothes for once!) looking like a younger version of Polixenes and Hermione; I reckoned that was how they looked to Leontes at any rate.

The first person to report the reunion scene was Emilia, followed by other members of the court, and when the shepherds arrived, they were also dressed in fancy clothes – black suits with elaborate waistcoats. Their attempts at fine manners and posh accents were very funny, and then the statue was brought on for the final scene. It came on in a large packing case, and while the sides were removed, other statues were positioned behind it to create the effect of an exhibition room. (Incidentally, one of the gold statues was of a sheep!) There were also some torches placed strategically around the room.

Once the sides of the crate were taken away, we could see a metal frame from which hung a circular curtain, concealing the statue. When the curtain was drawn back, the ‘statue’ was pretty steady, and the feelings of the various participants in this event came across clearly, despite my eyes becoming moist. For once, it felt acceptable that Leontes suddenly turned into a matchmaker and paired up Paulina and Camillo, and they chose to finish the performance simply, with the closing lines “Hastily lead away”, instead of adding a dance or something else to wake the audience up again. They got a good reception from the audience, and we left feeling suitably uplifted at the happy ending.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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