05th June, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Lansburgh Theatre (ShakespeareTheatre Company)
This production was at the Lansburgh Theater, which is the third venue I’ve visited for Shakespeare in DC and also the third most interesting. It’s smaller than the Harman, both in seating and the stage, but nowhere near as quirky as the Folger. In this production, the set is suggestive of a posh neo-classical country house drawing room, and the royal household of King Leontes are all dressed smartly, which gives it the feel of an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Being one of Agatha Christie’s biggest fans, this is an early point in the production’s favour. It’s also quite apt as Hermione is played by an actress (Hannah Yelland) whom the program informs me has appeared in Poirot. She did look familiar and so did Leontes (Mark Harelik) – I couldn’t decide whether I had seen him on television or if it was just because he reminded me of Rupert Everett, but it turns out he plays the boss of the physics department in The Big Bang Theory. So this is my first American Shakespeare with actors I have seen on the telly. They’re not exactly John Lithgow, but it’s something. The country house weekend mood is maintained with the drinking from decanters and the slightly tipsy behaviour.
This quite pleasant Edwardian/Wodehouse ambience is ominously interrupted by Leontes’ increasingly paranoid asides, and the dark effect is accentuated with strange, David Lynch-like noises (think the nightmarish bits from Mulholland Drive) and eerie pale blue lighting, which suggests more than a hint of some shadowy psychosis. This suggestion of mental imbalance is useful because from the dialogue alone we never really get a satisfactory explanation for Leontes’ sudden, groundless, and deadly suspicion. He seems to be comfortable in his world and his power is absolute. This is no Othello and there is no Iago to whisper poison in his ear. At the same time, the fear of unfaithfulness must be almost universal, and one could imagine it eating away at a mind that can get its way on every other issue but that. So this is a study in paranoia; even when a loyal and beloved servant attempts to use reason to defuse his suspicion, Leontes can only say ‘thou liest Camillo and I hate thee’.
In the first half this is a tale of misery, as has been suggested by Leontes’ son in the first scene, who says that ‘a sad tales’ best for winter’. So this play seems at first to be the inverse in all respects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in that case we would expect the tragic elements to continue throughout, which isn’t so. The play is set up for tragedy but ends as comedy, making it a little disconcerting for the audience. The first half is tragic without, except for some words of Hermione’s, enough of the redeeming nobility of tragedy. But the second half is a farce. Rather than attempt to bring those parts together into a harmonious whole, for example by downplaying the most poisonous aspects of the first half and emphasising the dramatic and serious aspects of the second half, this production deepens and widens the chasm between the two worlds. In the first half, the horror of Leontes’ behaviour is played for all it is worth. The stage reflects the obsessive suspicion of his poisoned mind and the actor’s performance is physical enough to shock. Sitting in the second row was an incredibly uncomfortable experience at times as the entire atmosphere took on the suffocating closeness of a broken marriage under the shadow of domestic violence. The death of their son, the end of Leontes friendship with Polixenes, even the trial of Hermione, felt weightless in comparison with the pulsating rage and barely contained power of Leontes when he at one point flew across the stage to grab Hermione. Likewise, the second half contained added elements of physical farce and comedy, so the contrast between the two halves was dramatic, but not necessarily successful. Whilst the farce gave emotional relief, it did not really ‘make right’ or justify the action from the first half. The setting seems odd too, being set in
seaborne visits to landlocked Bohemia.
The names are mostly Greek, rather than Sicilian or Bohemian (unless it is set
in the ancient world when Sicily was Greek, but then that was before Bohemia
existed). They swear by a mix of Roman and Greek gods: ‘By Jove’, ‘Apollo be my
Judge’ and then they send to the Greek Delphic Oracle. So it is set in a hybrid
world of ancient/modern, Greek/Roman.
This play has also sometimes been criticised for the meek portrayal of the female characters, especially Hermione. She doesn’t hesitate to forgive Leontes for his atrocious behaviour, which seems a little too easy on Leontes. But this is unfair. He has, after all, spent 16 years in miserable repentance. And if we follow the hints that Hermione has been alive the whole time in Paulina’s house, then it would seem that she could have revealed herself much earlier once she knew he was sorry. The fact that she waited so long suggests that she has already punished him, so there is no longer any need to cast a shadow over their reunion. There is also the issue that Shakespeare was writing in a man’s world. To say that women in such a world sometimes have to meekly accept injustice is not necessarily to endorse that world (and the goodness of Hermione, contrasted with the mad tyranny of Leontes could easily be read as criticism of male dominance). And the character of Paulina is the strongest in the play, much more forceful than her husband Antigonus, more just than King Leontes and, through her protection of Hermione, wiser than all of them. When Leontes asks Antigonus ‘canst thou not rule her?’, the answer for the audience is an emphatic and clear, ‘no he canst not’!
The program flagged up the apparently innovative (but also authentic) use of double roles for most of the actors, but I’m not sure we really gained much from it. On paper, pairing Leontes with Autolycus seems apt – Autolycus is the fool of
Bohemia and Leontes
has shown himself a kingly fool in Sicily. But
mostly there was no real connection between the Sicilian and Bohemian pairings.
And one of them was frankly odd without being interesting. The prince Murmillo
and princess Perdita were played by the same actress, which had a superficial
logic in that they were brother and sister, one born around the time the other
died. And I have nothing at all against actors taking on different genders,
which after all was done all the time by Shakespeare. But for a girl to play a
boy the girl should at least look fairly boyish, which was really not the case
here, with a Rubens-esque young lady playing the male child Murmillo. The actor
portraying Florizel came across as weak and dainty, rather than dashing and
princely, but fortunately he is not a key character.
The eccentricities of the plot have inspired me to develop my own, probably wrong and definitely un-provable, theory of its creation. The reasons for the kings jealousy are never explained, and we never really know for sure that Hermione is innocent, thought that is surely the conclusion we are pointed to. I believe that this play started out as an idea for a history play on Henry VIII – that towering figure of the Tudor period and renowned doubter of female fidelity. So Hermione is the adulteress Anne Boleyn, Perdita is Queen Elizabeth, and the emphasis towards the end on a King’s duty to remarry and beget an heir is both a reflection of Henry’s on-going quest to father princes and a reflection of the worry in Elizabethan England about what chaos and strife might follow upon the approaching death of the childless Elizabeth. But Shakespeare was much too sensible to put on such a play that might offend his monarch. Thus the names and locations are changed. Even so, to further reduce the dangers to Shakespeare’s life, the plot is then changed midway from tragedy to comedy, and becomes a fantasy about what would have happened if Anne Boleyn had been innocent and had not really died.
… The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and I would guess that it came early on in the period when Shakespeare was experimenting with tragi-comedies. But it is still an absorbing journey into strangeness, and an excellent, if frustratingly mysterious, study of the madness of jealousy.