by JK Clarke
Shakespeare must have been getting sentimental in his declining years. His last few plays are generally lumped into a new category that scholars refer to as “Romance Plays.” They tend to be top-loaded with drama in the first act, then shift radically to exuberant second acts, providing the weight of his tragedies followed by the predictable charm of the comedies, allowing everyone to go away content. The best example of such a play is The Winter’s Tale. In a regrettably short run as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, the UK’s Cheek by Jowl theater troupe—under the masterful direction of Declan Donnellan and design of Nick Ormerod—has brought its refreshing and intense look at this meditation on jealousy and temporary insanity to New York.
A stripped down, modern-dress production on a minimal set (just white wooden boxes of varying sizes and occasional video projection), the play focuses on the fragility of the family unit and how harmony can be irreparably altered by a momentary fit of madness. The production is framed by a more tragic wrapper (not originally scripted) which we don’t understand until the end and Act I, Scene 1 is dropped so that we focus on the King of Sicily, Leontes (a most excellent Orlando James) and his family— which includes his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Edward Sayer). Their relationship and interactions couldn’t be more jovial. Leontes wrestles with both his doting son, Mamillius (fascinatingly played by a wide-eyed, young Tom Cawte as slightly “off,” perhaps dwelling on the low end of the autism spectrum as evidenced later by head-slapping tantrums) and Polixenes, while conversing lovingly with his wife, Hermione (powerful and moving Natalie Radmall-Quirke) who is in very late-term pregnancy.
But, for whatever reason, Leontes’ mind begins playing tricks on him. We can see from his manic bursts of enthusiasm and exuberance with his family that he’s not necessarily in full control of his emotions (certainly not for a king), so his sudden and violent (there are numerous truly realistic looking slaps and punches) lurch into paranoia and jealousy doesn’t seem out of character. Delusionally believing that many men are cuckolded at some point in their lives—”There have been/(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,” and here James amusingly even points out likely victims in the audience—he accuses his wife and dear friend of having an affair, going so far as to say that the forthcoming baby is not his own. Despite their at first amused reactions (surely he must be joking) and aghast denials, he cannot shake his obsession and conspires to kill Polixenes (who escapes) and jails his wife. It quickly becomes too late. His son dies of heartbreak, and his wife eventually does, too (or so it seems), even after the Oracle has declared her innocent. Recovering too late from his lapse of reason, his life his ruined and the tragic first act is over. When the second act resumes, 16 years later—and this is where the play turns magical and mystical, bordering on preposterous—we find that his abandoned baby is living as a Shepherd’s daughter in Bohemia where, lo’ and behold, she has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son. The long denouement is a carefully crafted—and perhaps too long—ending that defies odds to an absurd degree.
The tricky thing about productions of The Winter’s Tale is that the implausible, sappy ending—when noblewoman, Paulina (commandingly played by Joy Richardson), brings the “statue” of “deceased” Hermione to life and reunites her with her husband and daughter (sorry, there can be no spoilers of a play written before the Mayflower sailed)—often come off as laughable. But when done well, as is the case here— exceedingly so—there’s nary a dry eye in the house.
The Winter’s Tale is a play brimming with emotion, and Cheek By Jowl plays that up by intensifying the passion of human connection and the importance of family. In Act I, when Leontes has come unglued, the men of his court move rhythmically around him, their steps beautifully choreographed like a dance. Much of the movement and facial expressions in the play seems to have this deliberate rhythm and flow. The production’s only shortcoming may be in the beginning of the second half when comic relief Autolycus (the con artist), turns the Sheep Shearing Festival into a sensational TV talk show, à la Maury or The Jerry Springer Show, complete with improvised/added dialog and dance numbers. Though it’s meant to change the mood, it’s distracting, especially considering the magnetism of the first act. But the play is salvaged when the action returns to Sicily. At last, seemingly all’s well that ends well . . . that is until this production reminds us that sweet, innocent Mamillius is the forgotten one (as much by Shakespeare as his characters) and doesn’t get to participate in the happy ending. It’s a nice tidy ending that leaves the audience (that gets it) thunderstruck and puts a less conventional twist on the usual Hollywood ending.
How unfortunate that this scintillating production is only available for a few more days. It’s a wonderful introduction to the play for those who’ve never seen it, and a welcome relief to those who’ve seen several productions and never feel quite satisfied.
The Winter’s Tale. Runs December 6 to 11 and is presented by Cheek by Jowl as part of BAM’s Next Wave series at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn). www.BAM.org
Photos: Rebecca Greenfield