Monday, May 4, 2020

A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter: Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

 Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Because The Winter’s Tale – one of the late glories of Shakespeare’s career – is a fairy tale, you accept the way Leontes, the king of Sicilia, turns abruptly on Hermione, his queen, and his childhood friend Polixenes, visiting from Bohemia, deciding on the impulse of a moment that they’re having an affair and that the child she’s carrying is his. It’s as if Leontes had been hit by a poison dart that chilled his heart and transformed the two people he loves most, aside from his son Mamillius, into sinister aliens. Declan Donnellan’s beautiful production of the play for Cheek by Jowl, which you can stream on the company’s website, is only the second one I’ve seen that attempts to give Leontes’ behavior a psychological reality. My first experience with the play was in Stratford, England, when I was twenty-five, and Ian McKellen played Leontes as psychotic. He was terrifying, and when he got to the “Too hot, too hot” soliloquy, where the character spins his crazy vision of his wife and his best friend as lovers, I had the sense that he was looking straight at me. (It was nightmarish.) McKellen was great, but the problem with playing Leontes that way was that when we got to the last act, after Leontes, under the guidance of his allegedly dead wife’s gentlewoman, Paulina, has spent sixteen years repenting for his actions, you just didn’t trust him; you kept waiting for him to turn again. In Donnellan’s Winter’s Tale, Orlando James’s Leontes seems to be in hyperdrive from the outset, and all his reactions to the people around him – his young prince (Tom Caute) as well as Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and Polixenes (Edward Sayer) – are worryingly intense, even his horseplay with his friend in the play’s opening minutes and the way he hugs Mamillius: with a kind of desperation, as if he were already working to persuade himself that this is truly his son. And mere moments later, when the boy picks the wrong time to approach him, Leontes knocks him down with his fist.  In “Too hot, too hot,” we see Hermione and Polixenes as he’s come to see them, in adulterous tableaux. It’s very creepy: the staging puts us in a madman’s head. When he orders his closest minister, Camillo (David Carr), to murder Polixenes and Camillo alludes to his “disease,” the description seems precise.

In this version, Hermione is so used to her husband’s erratic behavior that when he calls her an adulteress, at first she doesn’t take him seriously. (Living in this palace must take the patience of a saint; Mamillius is a handful too – he throws tantrums when he doesn’t think he’s getting enough of his mother’s attention. He appears to be his father’s son.) But the depth of her love for Leontes knocks you out. When he sends her off to prison – as Donnellan stages it, first he kicks her in the stomach, making her bleed and bringing on her labor prematurely – she tells him woefully that she never hoped to see him sorry but now she fears she will. And when, at the culmination of her trial for treason and adultery, he receives a reply from the oracle confirming her innocence and labeling him a tyrant, and he seems to lose his bearings, laughing hysterically and then breaking down in tears, instinctively she moves to comfort him; she doesn’t expect that he’ll proclaim it a falsehood and tear it in pieces. Apollo’s punishment for his hubris is instantaneous: Mamillius appears as a corpse upstage, Paulina pronounces that the queen has died too, and we can actually see how these losses, retribution for his wild, unhinged judgments, drive his disease out of him. He tries to take back what he’s done, but his vows to reform come too late; devastated by these events, the members of the court have drifted away, and he’s alone on stage, crying out into the void. When we see him again in Act V, he’s solemn and dignified; sorrow has caused him to grow at last into his kingship.

James gives a superlative performance, and he’s surrounded by actors of the same caliber. Radmall-Quirke brings strength and balance undergirded with deep feeling to the trial scene. As Paulina, who has the nerve to bring the baby girl right into her king’s chambers, Joy Richardson combines fearlessness with elegance; she treats him as if he were an unruly child – like Mamillius – but she doesn’t, as most Paulinas do, storm at him. This Paulina is a healer; it makes perfect sense that it’s she who effects the magic of the final scene, when she brings the statue of the queen to life. Carr shows us Camillo’s struggle to reconcile his king’s insane demands that he murder the visiting Bohemian monarch with his own moral essence; we see what it costs him to warn Polixenes, but also that only doing so could permit him to live with himself afterwards. When Leontes orders the baby to be left in the wilderness, it’s Paulina’s husband Antigonus who gets the commission, and Peter Moreton conveys the good old man’s mixed bewilderment and horror. Before he goes off with the child in his arms, he bends over to kiss Leontes on the forehead, like a baffled uncle bestowing a blessing that is the only thing he can think to offer a wayward, self-destructive nephew.

Donnellan can’t get the stubborn fourth act to work – the sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia and the romance between Polixenes’ son Florizel (Sam Woolf) and the shepherd’s daughter Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin), who is really the lost Sicilian princess. The humor is tiresomely cutesy, the acting is inconsistent, and the scenes involving the thief Autolycus (the Colin Farrell look-alike Ryan Donaldson) keep hitting the wrong note. But almost no one ever pulls off Act IV, and at least Donnellan wisely pares it down so we get through it quickly and return to Sicilia for the heartfelt reunions and the happy ending. I have seen the statue scene performed as magnificently as it is performed here, but only once – when Robin Phillips mounted the play at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada in 1978 with Brian Bedford as Leontes and Martha Henry as Paulina. In this version Hermione sits downstage, turned toward us, while the others, come to view “our carver’s excellence,” the statue that looks like it could breathe, wait expectantly upstage behind a divider. Everyone carries a candle in a glass. When Leontes approaches the statue and she turns towards him, you can hear your own heartbeat. And then – the genius touch – Mamillius appears, a ghost among the reconciled royals, and touches his father’s forehead before cloaked Time (Grace Anderson) leads him back beyond the grave. The lights fade until we’re left with only the candle flames, then darkness.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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