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.

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The Winter’s Tale – February 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 21st February 2013

While it was lovely to see this production a second time, the surprise factor was missing, so although the individual performances had all improved, I couldn’t rate the experience any higher than before. This time we sat over by the left walkway, and the change of angle brought out some interesting aspects we hadn’t seen before without blocking our view too much for the rest.

The colourful robes the court were wearing looked like costumes which they had put on to play at being ‘Eastern’; Camillo’s outfit seemed drab by comparison. Archidamus’ lines were much clearer tonight, and I was reminded of TheTaming of the Shrew when Leontes set his wife on Polixenes. Her verbal sparring brought laughter from the court, especially at her mocking use of the word ‘verily’. When the change came, Leontes dropped his fancy robe, so his jealous fit was all enacted in the more sombre colours he would wear for the rest of the first half. Hermione and Polixenes were dancing during the reference to “still virginalling upon his palm”, and there was a second dose of slow motion when Leontes sent his wife and best friend off into the garden.

Leontes circled his hands to represent Hermione’s full belly at ‘no barricade for a belly’, and I thought Camillo was a bit tactless when he harped on about Polixenes not staying at Leontes’ request. There was a lovely pause before Leontes said ‘slippery’, with a strong sibilant ‘s’ at the start. Camillo was amazed at what he heard, but kept his wits about him enough to realise he couldn’t argue with a madman. Leontes showed much suffering as well as his anger and jealousy, and it was hard not to feel some compassion for his madness. Camillo’s conversation with Polixenes was very good, with the details of their dialogue coming across clearly.

During the argument between Leontes and Hermione, he punched her in the stomach which was pretty shocking; last time he just slapped her, which was bad enough. I thought the punch may have been the reason why she delivered Perdita “before her time”. There was a pause after Leontes asked if he’d done well sending to the oracle at Delphi; only one lord responded – “well done, my lord” – and it rang pretty hollow, though the attempt at ‘fairness’ did make Leontes seem a little less deranged.

The messenger who brought the news of Mamillius’ death was one of the nursemaids, and from the way she avoided looking at Leontes as he declared Mamillius’s suffering to be caused by learning of his mother’s dishonour, I felt it was clear that she didn’t agree with the king’s interpretation; it was more likely the effect of discovering his father had gone completely barmy and had put his mother in prison. When Paulina put his little daughter on the cushions, the other men had to hold Leontes off as he went to stamp on the baby or hurt it in some way. Paulina was very strong, standing up to the king when he challenged her over the description of his queen as ‘good’, although it was clear that leaving the baby with this king wasn’t her best idea.

We couldn’t see Leontes so well tonight when he sat on the front steps of the stage during the trial scene, as the tortured chaps and their guard were blocking our view, but I caught glimpses. For “Sir, you speak a language that I understand not”, Hermione used arm and hand movements to illustrate what she was saying as if speaking to a child. Leontes threw this back at her with the line “Your actions are my ‘dreams’”.

When Leontes said “Thy brat has been cast out”, I realised it was the first Hermione has heard of the fate of her baby, and Paulina too for that matter. I saw Paulina’s reaction clearly, as she was on the far diagonal from me at the back of the stage. Hermione went over to her, and they were having some interaction, though I couldn’t make out the detail. Paulina was clearly distressed that her actions had led to the potential death of the baby girl, and from the post-show we learned that Tara Fitzgerald has a range of responses at this moment, from feeling extreme anger with Paulina and wanting to strangle her, to breaking down in tears. Paulina continued to suffer as the scene continued, and the shock of that news led nicely (if I can use that word here) into Hermione’s speech about desiring death. Paulina had a real go at Leontes for ‘killing’ his wife, and in the post-show we learned that Rakie Ayola, who played Paulina, believes that at this point Paulina thinks Hermione is actually dead, but later finds out she isn’t.

We couldn’t see that the boat disappeared from the screen this time as the tower was in our way. However the two shepherds were very good tonight. They seemed to have relaxed into their roles, and took their time a bit more with the lines, getting the points across clearly and getting more laughs as well. David Shaw-Parker played the old shepherd, and was very entertaining as he complained about those silly young folk. I suspect I enjoy these parts more as I get older. Nick Holder as the young shepherd did particularly well with his description of the ship and bear scenarios, punctuating his own interruptions by holding his hands up to stop himself.

The images on the screen during the interval were as before, and for the restart I noticed that Polixenes and Camillo kept to the front of the stage so that the rest of it could stay in darkness, prior to turning into the Bohemian ‘countryside’. Camillo was even more unhappy with the idea of disguises.

Autolycus was much as before but with small variations. He took the ice cream from the man in the right-hand deck chair first, then the bottle of beer from left-hand deck chair, then tried to get the blanket out from under the women front right but she wouldn’t budge until he farted in her face. When she woke up, he then sold her the blanket he’d just taken from her – “My traffic is sheets”. His tent was placed just in front of the tower, and he hid behind it when the young shepherd stirred and started counting fleeces. He and his women had already rolled over and ended up in more sexually active positions, with one of his hands on a breast and the other in a crotch. Perhaps that’s what caused him to wake up?

As the young shepherd was recalling his shopping list, Autolycus stole the sunglasses off the man in the right-hand deck chair, and also broke his fishing rod in half so he could use part of it as a stick. He also smeared some of the raspberry sauce from the ice cream cone onto the side of his face and then, pretending to be blind, he took the shepherd’s purse and watch. In response to the question “a horseman, or a footman?” he pointed out “I’m blind”, and there was humour in the way he slipped up occasionally and made the shepherd suspicious about him. Despite trying to make him blink with sudden hand movements, Autolycus managed to stare into the distance and finally convinced the shepherd he was indeed blind. His final gesture, putting out his hand to shake the shepherd’s and then taking it away at the last minute to thumb his nose, almost gave the game away, but the shepherd just left, shaking his head at this strange behaviour from a blind man. Pearce Quigley also added several slips during Autolycus’s description of himself, starting to say “I” or “me” and then changing it to “he” or “him”. After the shepherd had gone, Autolycus finished his speech, picked up his tent and left, pursued by the accordion player, who rarely left his side. Autolycus paused his song to look at him, then decided it was OK to have him along and started up the song again; they departed together.

When it came to the clog dance, the young shepherd wore a green leafy outfit – the Green Man? – and peed on the audience. Funnily enough, we were in the target area both this time and last. He also dragged Florizel into the middle to do a little solo, and Autolycus did the photography joke again, which was just as funny. For the final stage of the dance, Polixenes and Camillo were brought into the middle of the group and encouraged to sit down with their backs to each other and their legs spread wide. The dancers then did a lot of stamping between their legs, which they were very uncomfortable about, understandably. They got up as soon as they could, and as the dancers dispersed, Polixenes spoke to Florizel “How now, fair shepherd…”. Autolycus seemed to have fewer purses tonight to stash in his turban, and his description of the fate awaiting the shepherd’s son was very funny, not least because of Nick Holder’s reactions.

With the tower turned back round, Cleomenes and Dion were standing at the bottom with Paulina when she reminded them of the oracle’s prophecy; I was aware of the relevance of this, as they were the ones who had brought it from Delphi. She made “Stars, stars” each into a long cry, followed by a haunting “and all eyes else, dead coals!”

The next scene had the lords and Autolycus discussing the amazing events. The lords were smoking cigarettes (cigars last time?) and were very happy – not sure if there was champagne or not. Autolycus asked for information, and the others shared the narration of events. Cleomenes and Dion were the next arrivals with more information, and again they completed each other’s sentences. Antigonus’s fate was simply announced as “He was torn to pieces by a bear” which sobered everyone up for a moment, but then the lords burst out laughing (everyone laughed last time) and Cleomenes skipped over the loss of the ship and straight to Paulina’s reactions. Another lord arrived (the oracle-reader) with the news that the royal party was off to see the statue of Hermione, and they left. When Autolycus tried to go after them, one lord turned round and stopped him with a “No”, so he was left on stage to complain about his own honesty. When the shepherds arrived, the young shepherd was now wearing a wig – very entertaining – and it was this that Autolycus stole from him when they hugged.

The rest of the performance was as before, and it was again greeted with rapturous applause. We stayed on for the post-show – nothing more to add from what I’ve included in the notes – and were glad we had squeezed this one in again.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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

The Winter’s Tale – August 2009 (2)

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves

Company: RSC Youth Ensemble

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 14th August 2009

This was our first experience of the RSC Youth Ensemble, and while I enjoyed some of the performance, and felt they came up with some good ideas for staging, it’s not something I would normally include in our schedule. Some of the youngsters showed promise, all had worked very hard, and the editing done by Aileen Gonsalves worked very well. There were minimal costumes and no set (the performance took place on the regular Winter’s Tale set) and one musician at the back adding sound effects and music.

The play started with the Mamillius character investigating a hamper which turned out to have some clothes in it. The other actors rushed onto the stage as he approached the hamper and soon they were flinging the contents all over the place, occasionally trying some piece of clothing out. A few actors were helped into their ‘costumes’ and then we were into Act 2 Scene 2, with Hermione telling the waiting women to take her son for a bit. Even less explanation of Leontes’ jealousy, and no bad thing either. There’s enough explanation of the story after Hermione has been arrested and Leontes is telling his lords why he’s done it.

But first there’s a nice bit of staging, as Mamillius shows his ability to freeze time and slips out of his waistcoat so he can watch the rest of the action unfold. This emphasised the story-telling angle, and it was good to see so much of Mamillius, often the forgotten character of this play. He’s also able to stop time during the trial scene so that Hermione can get up and walk off, saving the other cast members the trouble of carrying her.

Polixenes and Camillo were played by two of the actresses within the group and a good job they made of it. The shepherds’ arrival during a storm was demonstrated by the older one flapping the ends of her cagoule, while the younger one lost his hat and had to chase it. Autolycus was singing snatches of modern songs, while Mopsa and Dorcas duetted with Abba’s Take A Chance On Me. The Bohemia scenes ended with a boat chase across the diagonal of the stage, with Camillo and Polixenes in hot pursuit of Florizel and Perdita and the shepherds following on behind. The young shepherd was nearly lost overboard but was rescued by his father.

Back in Sicilia we get the reports of the reunions from the servants and then Hermione’s statue, which was revealed in an interesting way. From our angle, we could see her walking on from the far side, but the rest of the ensemble was rushing around the stage a lot so it may not have been obvious from the front. The ‘spare’ actors then formed up in a ring around her, and as Paulina displays the statue, these actors squat down, then rise up and peel away like a curtain, running off stage. Nicely done.

The play ends with all the actors except Mamillius moving to the back, facing away from the audience. He moves towards them, and Hermione is the only one who sees him. She goes to hold his hand, before letting it go and joining the rest of the group. There’s some trigger which I don’t quite remember, and a final game of energetic tag, and then they formed up in the middle and the lights went down to end it.

There was a short post-show discussion where the youngsters were able to ask questions of Michael Boyd, and the audience got to join in too. The actors were certainly articulate and enthusiastic – our pick of the crop were Nina Kastner as Polixenes, Jodi Bree as Hermione, and Andrew Hodgson as Autolycus.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – August 2009 (1)

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th August 2009

This performance was so much better than the one we saw back in June. The dialogue was clearer, the individual performances had more detail, our view was better, and we suspect there was less paper on the floor in the second half. I hadn’t been looking forward to seeing this one again, but now I’m glad I did.

Of course, we’ve also attended various talks, including a chat from Kelly Hunter which was both interesting and revealing about the production and her own choices. She mentioned that she uses the time off stage between her ‘death’ and her arrival as a statue to get her body prepared for staying still, including lowering her heart rate. It certainly pays off, as I was watching her closely tonight and I couldn’t detect any movement at all, which is remarkable. I’ve only seen one other person do so well on stage, and he was a professional street performer who stands still for a living (Don Juan In Soho).

So to any specific differences or extra things we spotted. I watched Leontes closely tonight, and saw how the interaction between Hermione and Polixenes sparked the idea of jealousy in him, and how their subsequent, innocent behaviour added fuel to the fire. Hermione was indeed getting physically close to Polixenes, but it was at her husband’s request, and as Kelly mentioned earlier, her large bump made her sexually unavailable so flirting would have seemed more permissible. I was also conscious that Polixenes himself announces that he’s been there for nine months and it seemed to me that that detail contributed to Leontes’ delusional obsession. The whole scene came across more clearly, and while I enjoyed some of the early humour, I found I was out of sync with most of the audience at times as I wanted to savour the darkness of Leontes’ behaviour rather than laugh at it.

I had no such problems when Paulina takes the baby to the king and gives him a good telling off in the process – plenty to laugh at there. The trial scene was also stronger, and I was starting to get the sniffles at the sad news, first of Mamillius’s death, then Hermione’s (even though I know how the play ends). The bear seemed to work better this time, and Steve remembered the mittens hanging down from the sleeves of the young shepherd – a nice touch, showing us directly that he’s not the sharpest tool in the box.

The second half rattled through much as before but I enjoyed it better. Autolycus seemed to have come on, or perhaps I was just used to this portrayal. His stint as a courtier, manipulating the two shepherds for his own ends, was definitely funnier. The final scenes, with the Bohemia crew arriving en masse in Sicilia, followed by the revelation of the statue and Hermione’s return to life, were all very good, and I noticed a reference to Mamillius which was quickly quashed by Leontes, which answers a point raised during some of the talks, that Hermione and Leontes don’t mention the boy at all during the reunion scene. The play finished as before, with Autolycus left out in the cold. The audience showed its appreciation, and I left the theatre happier than I’d expected to be.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (3)

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Mendes

Company: Old Vic Bridge Project

Venue: Old Vic

Date: Wednesday 24th June 2009

This was a superb production, played on a thrust version of the Old Vic stage that was eerily reminiscent of the old RST. The set was plain, with a large square platform slightly raised above the rest of the stage and positioned well to the front, though with enough space for the actors to walk in front of it. The back and side walls were all done in floorboard style, as was the platform. For the opening scene, the platform held a child’s bed, complete with teddy bear, on the left hand side, some cushions with a bottle in the middle, and on the right a table and chairs, a fairly plain wooden set that could be found in many a kitchen today. I could only make out a chess set laid out for a new game, plus some glasses. There were many lamps hanging down at different levels towards the back, together with lots of candles on stands, and two large swings did duty as shelves for another swathe of candle lamps.

The platform was cleared quickly once it was no longer needed, and various tables and chairs were brought on as required. The candle lamps were blown out early on, while the lamps and candle stands kept going till we left Sicilia. That change was done rather well, I thought. The attendants lined up along the back wall, in relative gloom, and first the men, then  the women, blew out the nearest candle simultaneously, while the hanging lamps were gradually drawn up, as were the swings. This left the stage nicely bare for the Bohemia scenes, with the back wall lifting up to show us sky and clouds. The sheep shearing feast (and what idiots would shear their sheep in the autumn?) was a riot of balloons in red white and blue, while the return to Sicilia was given a wonderful mourning effect by the bare stage and just one long bench. For the statue scene, a small plinth was placed at the front of the platform, with an arc of chairs facing it and us. The bear, incidentally, was a ‘real’ bear rather than the paperback version, and did the job nicely. Costumes were some period or other, probably nineteenth century but don’t quote me, and I thought they worked very well; neither as austere nor as bucolic as the current RSC version.

So to the staging. Instead of the usual chit chat between Camillo and Archidamus, Mamillius came to the front of the stage, sat on the platform and using ‘his’ teddy bear, gave us the lines from a later scene about a sad tale being best for winter. I say ‘his’ because Mamillius was doubled with Perdita, both being played by Morven Christie, a doubling that we’ve seen before and which works very well. After this, we got the first line from Leontes, sitting on the bed with his pregnant wife beside him on the floor. Polixenes was sitting by the table, but moved over to recline on the cushions, where Hermione joined him as part of her persuasion strategy. Leontes had to help her up at first, but she was soon down again and lolling against Polixenes in a way that could be seen as overly friendly, if you’re half blind and inclined to think the worst of people. Leontes obviously falls into that category, but his suffering and his madness were clear to see. There was good use of lighting in this production, with asides spotlit and the background action either highlighted or dimmed.

After the initial part of this scene, Camillo and Archidamus had left, so there’s a much greater sense of the intimacy of this group at this point. With Hermione and Polixenes chivvied off stage, Leontes at first told his son to go and play, but then took him over to the bed, and with much tenderness caressed and kissed him. It’s here, in Mamillius’s bedroom where Leontes suborned Camillo to kill Polixenes. When Leontes started to shout at Camillo, Mamillius woke up, and had to be reassured back to sleep. Later, when Polixenes arrived, it was noticeable how quiet he was so as not to wake the sleeping prince.

We then got the scene of Hermione’s arrest. At first, all was going well, with Mamillius drawing or painting at the table, and bantering a little with the two waiting women. Hermione was on the bed, and then Leontes came in with a few courtiers and all hell broke loose. Mamillius was clearly upset and was taken away, while Hermione seemed unbelieving at first. Her attempt to reconnect with the man she knows and loves so well was touching to see, and spoke volumes about the closeness of their relationship previously. The impact of her being accused publicly was also apparent, having been set up by the earlier lack of courtiers. When she was taken off, the platform was cleared for Paulina’s entrance.

She arrived with a couple of suitcases (hers, or intended for Hermione, I wondered?) and the chat with Emilia was as usual. The next scene had Leontes, wrapped in a blanket, coming down to the front of the stage, clearly tortured by the situation. Polixenes and Hermione stood on either side of the stage at the front, motionless, the objects of his jealousy and hate.

When an attendant arrived to tell him about Mamillius, he actually brought the boy on stage in a wheelchair, looking very listless. I think he was wheeled off before Paulina comes on, but I’m not sure. Anyway, she did come on, wrapped in a shawl to disguise the bulky parcel she’s carrying. Not the most ferocious Paulina, perhaps, but certainly with plenty of authority, and the men were definitely not taking any chances with her. The comedy in this scene came across well, and Leontes was almost moved to compassion when he went over to pick up the little baby whom Paulina had left on a chair. This was the cuddliest Leontes I’ve ever seen, showing physical affection both for Mamillius and the baby, though sadly the outcome was the same. He sent Antigonus away with the baby, and then came the news that the oracle’s judgement has arrived. Leontes divested himself of his blanket and put on his jacket while the set was prepared for the trial scene, and in the meantime Cleomenes and Dion sit at the front of the stage talking about the wonders of their trip to Delphi.

Once they’d gone, the trial could begin. There was now a long table across the stage with three chairs, and there were four chairs to the left side of the platform where Hermione’s ladies sat after helping her on. She sat to the left and Leontes to the right of the table, with one of the other courtiers sitting in the middle as judge. He looked like he’d rather not have the job, to be honest, and there was a hint of trembling in his hand as he held the indictment and read it out. Hermione was in a drab shift, not fully recovered from childbirth though without the blood stains that often accompany this scene. She held her own pretty well, reading the first part of her speech from a tatty scrap of paper, while Leontes seemed fatigued and depressed rather than angry and vengeful for most of this scene. It was the judge’s nervousness and unhappiness that really conveyed the harshness of Leontes’ absolute authority.

When the oracle was called for, the judge used a sword for Cleomenes and Dion to swear on, and was clearly relieved to read out the good news of Hermione’s innocence. Unfortunately the king was determined to have a guilty verdict, and the inevitable happened. I liked the way this production allowed the actors to breathe and think instead of having to deliver their lines like a supermarket checkout person – so many per minute. When Leontes was talking with Paulina after she’s announced the death of his wife, he moved over to the table, and during his lines he paused briefly to pick up the piece of paper Hermione had with her during the trial. It was another touching moment, and another example of the layers of detail in the performance which made it such an enjoyable experience.

We were now off to Bohemia and the stage was cleared, with the back panel raised to show us a cloudy sky. Antigonus came onto this stage near the front and left the baby dead centre, speaking his lines to the audience. Which is why he didn’t see the big brown bear sneaking up on him from behind. As he got up to leave he turned and saw the bear, which reared up on his hind legs and …. blackout. The gory details were left to our imaginations. (Thankfully.) Then the old shepherd arrived, calling for his sheep, and set the tone for the comedy to come. The dialogue came across clearly, aided by Richard Easton (nice to see him again) providing some strong expressions to supplement the lines. Just before he headed off after the meeting with his son, he put the baby down and turned round to announce that he was taking on himself the role of time, a lovely way to segue the two scenes. He gave us the Time speech with both Florizel and Perdita standing at the back of the stage, so we would be prepared for who was who in the second half. Interval.

The second half began with Polixenes and Camillo, both older, having their little conversation, and the final line – “we must disguise ourselves” – got a good laugh. Then we met Autolycus for the first time. With the cast being split so that British accents were in Sicilia, and American ones in Bohemia, it was no surprise that Autolycus ws dressed like a hobo Bob Dylan, with a guitar which he used to accompany the songs he sings. I felt at the time it was  shame they hadn’t gone for some American country or folk songs instead of the regular Shakespeare stuff, as it’s even harder to get across the jokes with some of the songs than it is with the antiquated references in the dialogue. However. He sang and played well enough, and again the spoken lines came across more clearly than many another player’s.

With such a bare stage, the only place he could hide to avoid the young shepherd (I do wish Will had given the shepherds names) was below the back end of the platform. When he did emerge, it was with a large wooden cross which he proceeded to crucify himself on, only without the nasty business of the nails. This was good fun. He stole the shepherd’s wallet, as per usual, and after they went off to their various destinations, the stage was set up for a regular hoe-down. In addition to the balloons, there was a table laden with food, lots of chairs and a band, who struck up at every opportunity, including the ballads. The flowers were very nice, one of the women was nursing a small baby, and the two visitors were in the traditional long beards, hats and glasses. I thought they might have cut the satyrs dance, but we got a lively version of it here, with three men and three women adding balloons to their outfits to emphasis certain physical characteristics. Two of the women were Dorcas and Mopsa, the young shepherd’s jealous girlfriends, so there was some strategic balloon popping going on which left the young shepherd looking very deflated.

After Florizel’s attempt to marry Perdita had been broken up by his father revealing himself, the couple and Camillo went to the side of the stage to sit down and plot their escape. Meanwhile Autolycus came on, replete with purses, and was suitably happy to be in decent clothes again after the switch. He was a very casual courtier to the two shepherds, sitting in a chair, and it seemed plain that he once was at court and knows the manners instead of acting the total clown as some do. They reacted with terror to the news that they were to be killed, and were only too happy to ask for his help in approaching the king. And so we’re off to Sicilia at last.

The final act started with the bare stage and the bench, and when Leontes and Paulina arrived he was carrying a small bunch of flowers which he left centre front, as if laying them on Hermione’s grave. It was a lovely touch. Only one attendant was with them, and after the argument over the king’s remarriage was settled, the news of Florizel and Perdita’s arrival was brought, followed shortly by the people themselves. There was a moment of recognition from Leontes when he first sees Perdita – she was well cast to resemble Hermione – and I noticed that at the end of the scene, when Perdita was left with Paulina for a moment, Paulina got her first good look at the girl and her face also lit up as she recognised the similarity. I sniffled. I wasn’t sure if Paulina actually realised what the similarity meant, but it was a possibility.

The reporting of the reunions was well done, and then the bench was removed, the plinth brought on (placed over the flowers, I think), and Hermione’s ascent onto the pedestal was assisted by a group of attendants huddling in front of the plinth. She managed to stay pretty still, but it’s not easy for that length of time and so close to the audience. I liked this set up though, as it meant we got a good view of the other characters’ reactions to the statue. I sniffled a fair bit during this scene, as is only to be expected, and then with the reunions finally over we got to applaud good and hard for such a wonderful performance.

I loved the clarity of the dialogue in this production. I heard many lines for the first time and others were fresh and new, or given emphasis by appropriate gestures or expressions. Simon Russell Beale in particular was excellent as Leontes. I’ve already mentioned how much more affectionate he was with the children, and I also got a greater sense of him being driven by his jealousy to behave this badly, almost against his will. His suffering was more evident than I’ve seen before too, all of which made the play more focused and the eventual happiness all the more enjoyable.

The rest of the performances were also good, and the ensemble played very well together. Richard Easton’ shepherd was another highlight, and I suspect I’ll be even more impressed retrospectively after seeing The Cherry Orchard next week, once I’ve got a better appreciation of the actors’ range in different parts.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (2)

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 15th June 2009

Having seen the understudy run and enjoyed it, it was always going to be a risk the first time we saw the regular cast in action. Fortunately it wasn’t a disappointment. This was their first Winter’s Tale after a break from it so they may have been a little rusty, but the performance was just as good overall with some gains and some slight losses.

In terms of performance Greg Hicks was a more tortured soul while Kelly Hunter brought out Hermione’s dignity and courage in adversity. Brian Doherty as Autolycus had had much more time to work on the comedy business than Paul Hamilton, so naturally there were more laughs and some things went more smoothly, but I wouldn’t rate the performance much higher than the understudy’s. The light dome fell as it should tonight, landing upright in the middle to form a cradle for the baby Perdita, but otherwise the set seemed just as before. We were sitting further back but at a similar angle, and I couldn’t hear some of the lines so well tonight, but I certainly sniffled as much as I had before and laughed just as much so it was another good evening all round.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me