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.