The Winters Tale Deserving of Varying Interpretations!
by Carol Rocamora
“Exit, pursued by a bear!”
These famous stage directions are one of many challenges that Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale poses. One of the Bard’s so-called late romances, it seesaws between tragedy and comedy, Italy and Bohemia, fairy tale and fantasy, Greek and Christian myth – posing enough bi-polar problems to scare off the most daring of directors.
On top of that, there’s the improbable, near-outrageous plot featuring Leontes, jealous king of Sicilia, whose imagines his pregnant wife Hermione is having an affair with his brother, Polixenes. His rages result in the death of the innocent Queen after giving birth to their daughter, Perdita. (Leontes condemns the infant to instant death, but she’s rescued by a compassionate nobleman who whisks her away to a safe foreign haven). Flash forward sixteen years to Bohemia, when, after a raucous subplot involving the local peasants, Leontes and his family members (both dead and living) are miraculously united, defying story-telling logic, not to mention realism.
But Declan Donellan is not one to shy away from such challenges. The founder of the adventuresome Cheek & Jowl Company and an associate of the Royal National Theatre, Donellan’s Winter’s Tale comes on the heels of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s traditional production of the play that opened the Garrick Theatre last season, starring Sir Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench. A tough act to follow, you might think – and yet both radically different interpretations do justice to Shakespeare’s work without detracting from one another.
Donellen’s great achievement is clarity. He strips the stage bare, save for a long three-part plinth and a large multi-purpose rectangular structure that functions as a boat, a funeral pyre, a house, a projection screen, or whatever else the set designer Nick Ormerod needs it to be. He directs his agile actors to perform in an expressionistic movement style, choreographed to heighten the melodramatic action. It takes a few moments to adjust to this stylistic staging, as well as Angie Burr’s contemporary costumes. At first, King Leontes’s appearance (in blue jeans) is off-putting in contrast to his courtiers’ formal wear. So is the mélange of styles during the “big Bohemian dance number” in Part II, featuring peasants wearing everything from disco dresses to Indian headgear.
But gradually we adjust to Donellan’s bold concept (that also includes a video camera flashing live images onto the upstage wall). The result is a startling rendering of The Winter’s Tale, one that jolts us out of conventional expectations and makes it accessible and entertaining to a modern audience.
As Leontes, Orlando James gives a passionate performance of a deluded king who is truly contrite in the end. Natalie Radmall-Quirke is a regal Hermione, and the rest of the cast members (in multiple roles) are uniformly excellent and in complete command of the Bard’s poetry. Special mention goes to young Tom Cawte, who, as Leontes’s son Mamillius, is directed to lie on the floor, howling and writhing in agony, as his parents engage in mortal battle. (He dies, and later comes back as a ghost, in the play’s final moving tableau.) This director demands a lot of his actors, and they deliver.
Declan Donellan has found a balance between serving Shakespeare and bringing his work into the twenty-first century. He makes the text clear without condescending to the audience. There may be a few directorial excesses here and there, but they are outweighed by the production’s breathtaking urgency and speed, taking the audience on a thrilling ride.
“If this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating,” says Leontes. Donnellan and his creative team have delivered that magic, as electrifying as the bolts of stage thunder that jolt the audience out of its complacency and engage us in a deeply moving story of wrong-doing, redemption, and forgiveness.
The Winter’s Tale, by Shakespeare, a Cheek by Jowl production directed by Declan Donnellan, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 6-11.
Photos: Rebecca Greenfield