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The Winter’s Tale

Bell Shakespeare present THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.

Shall I simply write the bare and naked facts of my experience in the theatre: it was good, it was bad; I liked it, I hated it, or, should I try to give an analysis of why I felt that way?

THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare was written in the reign of James I, the Jacobean era. With PERICLES (1607-8), CYMBELINE (1609-10) , THE WINTER’S TALE (1610-11) and THE TEMPEST (1611) we enter the period of Shakespeare’s Tragicomic Romances

… from PERICLES which is loosely plotted, to THE TEMPEST, which is one of the most tightly structured plays, the middle-aged dramatist realises the final vision of his art. All the great Shakespearean themes come together at the end: theatrical illusion and its relation to life, the conflict between appearances and reality, the discovery of the self, the capacity of art to transform terror into beauty, and the power of love to heal. … Fantastical, superficial, artificial, improbable, impressionistic, inferior, miraculous, boring – or the best: no one can agree on the merits of Shakespeare. The eminently reasonable Dr. Johnson dismissed them as foolish, and they are. But, in the words of the playwright Dennis Potter, they are “sweetly foolish.”

So says Norrie Epstein in his book, The Friendly Shakespeare [1]

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s in Sydney, the only Shakespeare I ever saw was ‘potted’ Shakespeare by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust – once. A MACBETH at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney (it was a school play text for our Leaving Certificate – and, by the way, was the scene of a near riot by us, the audience, when the murderer of Lady Macduff’s child cried out: “What, you egg…” – a thunder of foot stamping and hoots of mockery with the tympani of hurled Jaffa lollies spraying around the auditorium like bullets – ouch! The Old Tote production of KING LEAR in one of the University of NSW converted lecture theatres, with, as I remember, Ron Graham, the King and Jennifer West, one of the awful daughters/sisters – I remember begging for Cordelia to breathe for the old man – I loved it and cried buckets; and the John Gregg, HAMLET – not nearly as affecting, I thought. The Genesian Theatre, had as well treated me to a KING LEAR; a potted version of the HENRY IV plays called BANISH PLUMP JACK – adapted by Shakespearean fanatic and ‘genius’ Margaret Reineck; and a RICHARD II, starring Peter Carroll, he, just having returned from his voice studies in London. Also a musical version of TWELFTH NIGHT called YOUR OWN THING, at the Philip Theatre, Elizabeth Street, in March 1969, with Bryan Davies (a teen music idol), Lynn Rogers, Bunny Gibson and Lois Ramsey.

The first, truly great Shakespeare that I ever saw was a visit from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), with the John Barton, TWELFTH NIGHT, and the Trevor Nunn, THE WINTER’S TALE, with Judi Dench, Elizabeth Spriggs, Richard Pasco, Barrie Ingham and Donald Sinden, at the old Theatre Royal, in March 1970 – I was a student at National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) , and we were given free tickets in the God’s, the second balcony Dress Circle – way up stairs in the top balcony, at the back, and those seats were barely padded wooden boxes, and on other occasions, had been torture, but, on those two nights (of TWELFTH NIGHT and THE WINTER’S TALE) I remember being paralysed, not with discomfort, but with a kind of rapture that I have, forever, sought since. Three hours, or so, of a theatrical nirvana, a suspension in time, of time, it was an out of body experience. A turning point in my life. I have indelible memories of both productions but, particularly, THE WINTER’S TALE.

Three friends, comfortable and trusting in their relationships: husband to wife, wife to husband, ‘brother’ to ‘brother’, ‘sister’ to ‘brother’, are exploded and destroyed, swiftly, with a kind of ‘brain snap’ of jealousy, that all but the husband, a King of Sicilia, Leontes (Myles Pollard), the most powerful participant in this triangle, know is unfounded. It has swift and catastrophic repercussions; the ‘brother’, Polixenes (Dorian Nkono), also a King, but of Bohemia, is forced to flee, unceremoniously – he does so with the aid of Camillo (Philip Dodd), a trusted aid of Leontes, who perforce of his choice is exiled; a pregnant Princess of Russia/wife/’sister’/Queen, Hermione (Helen Thomson), is imprisoned and accused a strumpet by her husband/King; a girl child is born, and is taken from Hermione, and ordered to be abandoned in a desert place by Antigonus (Terry Serio); a public trial ensues where Hermione defends her honour, and is, ultimately, declared innocent by the Oracle of Delphi, which the King had commissioned to arbitrate for him, but in his ‘madness’, rejects. Apollo causes retribution against the King: his young son, Mamillius (Rory Potter), dies of grief and we are told that Hermione herself, too, has died, that information delivered by her servant, Paulina (Michelle Doake). The King in shock regrets all and retires to repentance. Meanwhile, Antigonus leaves the child in the desert of Bohemia (it introduces one of the most startling stage directions ever written: ” Exit, pursued by a bear”!); the baby is found by two shepherds (Myles Pollard, Justin Smith) who name her Perdita (Liana Cornell) and adopt her.

Act IV finds us at a holiday celebration, some sixteen years later in Bohemia. There is much flirtation, courting, singing and dancing, not least of which is led by a wily ‘thief’, Autolycus (Terry Serio) . Florizel (Felix Jozeps), the son of Poloxines, has fallen in love with Perdita, not knowing her true origin, and is discovered by his furious father, and Camillo. Both are forbidden to communicate more, and Perdita and the shepherds, her adoptive family, are threatened with punishments and death. Camillo advises Florizel to flee with Perdita to Sicilia. They do so with the assistance of Autolycus who suspects there is reward possible from such a deed well done.

Act V finds us back in Sicilia where a penitent Leontes greets the fleeing couple. The chasing Polixines, we are told, is reacquainted with Leontes, and Perdita is revealed as his long lost daughter, which permits the wedding plans to be made. Perdita hearing of a marvellous statue, just newly completed, of the likeness of her mother requests to see it. Led by Paulina, all the court attend, where a ‘miracle’ of reconciliation is made when that statue comes back to life. KIng/husband to Queen/wife; ‘brother’ to ‘brother’; ‘sister’ to ‘brother’; father to son and daughter to mother and father; Prince to Princess. A world of order is restored – all is made right.

The language of Shakespeare in THE WINTER’S TALE is complexly challenging and sophisticated in its expression, in this his almost, next to last play (Leontes’ famous circumlocutions in Act One, Scene Two, are a tasking process for only the most skilful actor to engage with – thought and words so entangled with precisions of textual demands/instructions/clues, pushed by careening emotions, that they must be harnessed, firmly, to succeed as a ‘readable’ offer for an audience – a primed marathon of focus and skill must be quivered and ready in the artist’s armoury). A new form of stroytelling, the Tragicomic Romance, is explored and elevated to a powerful, poetic, mythical ether at THE WINTER’S TALE ending. Shakespeare, building on from the only partially successful probings into that realm, in the earlier PERICLES and CYMBLELINE . Contemporary relevance will no longer be enough to believe – it will be required to awake one’s faith, to be satisfied. The first three acts are swift and clear in the conflicting passions of the storytelling – there is in the writing a heightening of the energy of the events so that we cannot sit comfortably, but must need to gulp breaths of air, to keep up, and to hold it longer than natural during the trial scene, so as not to surrender to deadening shock and dazed disbelief at Leontes’ stubborn actions. The fourth act offers respite from the tragedy, but is more than that, and one must concentrate, for it is a complicated romantic pastoral idyl, full of comic and love burdened speech, song and dance, equal to the romances of say, LOVE LABOUR’S LOST or AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT and yet, still and carefully, ringing bells of poetic connectedness to the background of the main events of the world of Leontes and his Queen, previously seen. The fifth act a breathtaking act of fantasy and magic, most of it retold and not seen, to keep in reserve and leading to, with the genius of structured suspense, a reconciliation, in one of the most famous scenes of emotional impact dared by the master writer, Shakespeare – the bringing to life of a statue, retrieving a love that was thought lost, and to give a ‘closure’ that was thought, till now, impossible.

This is how I now recall The RSC’s production of THE WINTER’S TALE from some 44 years ago: it was set in a white box which was the nursery of the Leontes and Hemione Siciilan palace. A huge over-sized rocking horse dominated the space until a whirling cube perspex box, representing Time, came onto the stage. We were then taken through Time of sixteen years, to Bohemia, to a whirlwind of song and laughter, reminiscent of the vital musical energies of the 1960’s counter culture and costume – easily accessed and culturally comfortable (the musical HAIR, which was playing in Sydney up at the Metro Theatre, Kings Cross, at the same time, pervaded the aesthetic influences, for me, to read the production intentions and design). Then in gathering drama we were taken back to a sombre world of repentance in the court of Sicilia, that as the action of the writing unfolded became a spiritual redemption of soul of unearthly power and awe. The thesis of Sicilia, contrasted with the antithesis of Bohemia, to be retrieved by the synthesis of both those worlds, consequently, re-enforcing the unity of this play, enhancing them to a majesty of feeling, such indeed, that my world had, literally, changed. For, when the audience gave applause at its conclusion and I descended from the Gods of the Theatre Royal, I felt six or seven feet above the earth of dear old Castlereagh St. Sydney, when reaching it. A universe had been shown to me, beyond my twenty year old worldliness. My view of life and the possibility of expectation was bigger than it had ever been before. The RSC had led me there through a staggering revelation of Shakespeare’s storytelling genius. I was ready to watch Fellini, again, feeling, now ready! Bring on 8 and a half (1963); JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965) ! I’m ready to re-engage. I thought! “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”!

John Bell’s production of THE WINTER’S TALE in the Playhouse, is set in a white, curtained contemporary children’s bedroom. (Design by Stephen Curtis. Lighting by Matthew Marshall) And that is, unfortunately, the only coincidence of connection for me – the white colouring of the children’s room. This production was a collective disappointment, that, as it proceeded from act to act seemed to be less and less focused and controlled. This production of THE WINTER’S TALE, unlike my first, left me exhausted and more than a little depressed about the quality of the work of the Bell Shakespeare.

In the notes to the program, the Dramaturg for this production, John Kachoyan, although he acknowledges that most scholars “are loath to ascribe autobiographical interpretations to Shakespeare’s works, often because the verifiable details of his life are so scarce” goes on to talk of the death of one of Shakespeare’s children, Hamnet, in 1596, and that Shakespeare never wrote anything of any grief concerning that loss. He then conjectures that Shakespeare, like his character Constance in KING JOHN is possibly “frantic at the loss of her (his) son … ” and suggests “… It is tempting to see such echoes in THE WINTER’S TALE and to feel for a playwright at the height of his powers who even then, cannot produce such a miracle” –  that he was trying to find a way to do so, and had done so with this play! – some 14 or 15 years after the actual loss.

The greater part of Shakespeare’s writing, some 24 other plays, including masterpieces such as: AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT, HAMLET, OTHELLO, KING LEAR, MACBETH, are yet to come, after the death of Hamnet, and not one of them ever concerns itself with the loss of a child in any way, and after some scrutiny, it does not seem to me, that THE WINTER’S TALE does, either. (The Bell synopsis in the program of the action of the play does not detect that either.) It is a kind of  presumptuous conceit, is it not?

Mr Kachoyan goes on to say: “But there is hope in this play, and the tantalising idea that Mamillius’ place and power in the schema of this world can be re-imagined, drives John Bell’s production. Here the play (in this production) becomes an exploration of the power of childhood trauma and dreams that envisions the play’s pastoral second half as a restoration of sorts – the grief dream of a child, at once powerful and unstable. John Bell, like Shakespeare, asks: can Mamillius redeem the tale and forgive the king? The answer perhaps is through a child’s dream … .” Of course the obvious flaw in this statement of concept is that this is not Shakespeare’s intention in writing THE WINTER’S TALE. Surely, Mr Bell is on his own here, and is not “like Shakespeare” when he asks the above question: “can Mamillius redeem the tale and forgive the king?” If that had been Shakespeare’s interest might he have written that play, instead of the one we have? Who knows? Mr Bell, it seems, sees fit to distort this play to those intentions.

This meddling with the play, this need for Mr Bell to make a contemporary story for himself and us, making the play the outpourings of the psychological coping mechanism of a child witnessing an abusive parental relationship and the divorce consequences, inventing a “fairy-tale” of redemption, and seems to ignore what actually happens in the play as writ. Mr Bell and company superimposes a structure that does not unlock something that is truly in the text, but rather distorts it. It is a clumsy, and in the revealed action of this production, an unforged, and inconsistent application of a wilful attempt to appropriate the play text to the Director’s imagination, rather than revealing that of the writer’s. Mr Bell is in effect re-writing the play, equal it seemed to me, to the dramaturgical shifts that Mr Stone had made with Shakespeare’s HAMLET at Belvoir, last year. The effect of the Mamillius dream concept is to narrow Shakespeare’s text rather than opening it.  Like Mr Stone’s intellectual conceit in fitting Shakespeare’s Hamlet to his therapeutic needs, Mr Bell seems to have taken a need to bring a Prospero-like magic wand to this play and imaginatively attempt to explore his contemporary anxieties about emotionally abused children – a considerable contemporary topicality, no doubt. Jan Kott whose book SHAKESPEARE OUR CONTEMPORARY has had a lot of influence over the past fifty years, has often been misunderstood as to what he meant :

What I have intended is not a forced topicality … Shakespeare does not have to be modernised or brought up to date … what matters is that through Shakespeare’s text we ought to get our own modern experience, anxiety and sensibility.

I believe the anxieties and sensibilities of Shakespeare’s text in THE WINTER’S TALE (in any of his texts) are sufficient enough to be given to a contemporary audience without the unnecessary pre-occupation of Mr Bell’s personal anxieties and sensibilities coming between us and the writer. Perhaps, rather, the Bell Shakespeare should write their your own play, a different play, if that is the urgent necessity you want to illustrate, talk about – as Charles Marowitz did  in his practice – e.g. THE SHREW, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE – in a way that was interesting, if not as timelessly pertinent as the originals..

The recent experience of the London Globe Theatre productions of TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III, even the broadcast of OTHELLO, from the National Theatre, where the period was transposed to a contemporay army barracks, was sufficient proof for me, that contemporary Shakespeare does not need the gimmickry of a directorial conceit to make it work today. In those productions the Director and Designer’s contributions illuminated Shakespeare, did not obfuscate, diminish or make boring the text. All three productions placed their faith and energy in serving the writer. They trusted in what was written.

However, the major issue of this production, and let us confine ourselves to this production, although arguably, we could parallel some other recent past Bell productions, is the casting by this company.

In John Barton’s book Playing Shakespeare, based on the London Weekend Television program of the same name, of some nine episodes, Mr Barton begins by talking out with some actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the observation of the contemporary playing style of Shakespeare which he calls, The Two Traditions: the marrying of the Elizabethan and Modern style.

The Modern style is the inherent heritage of the western tradition that was crystallised by Konstantin Stanislavsky in Moscow at the start of the twentieth century that has, since then, been in a constantly evolving refinement. Instinctively then, contemporary actors, when approaching any text, in this case, Shakespeare’s text, apply consciously, unconsciously, the creative habits that have served them in the many other forms of their employment – theatre, film, television – that they have been creating, working in. It is as natural for them to begin there, as natural as breathing, this absorption in ‘reading’ a text through the influence of Stanislavsky methods. This company of actors in this Bell Shakespeare production, demonstrated a remarkable clarity of meaning gleaned, extracted, from the relatively difficult language construction of THE WINTER’S TALE. They had solved the humanities of the characters, and got on top of the thoughts behind the language expression. No small feat. The clear sightedness that they all had as to the given circumstances and then to the action, objective needs of telling the story were, mostly, apparent. The Modern style at work.

It is the other tradition, the Elizabethan tradition, that tended to be not accessible to all in this THE WINTER’S TALE. This tradition, Mr Barton tells us, is the use of the language and the method of communicating of that to their audience. Living in environments not easily lit, and most of the audience unable to read or write, the oral tradition was the way that most of the audience learnt their stories, whether they be official legal announcements, church sermons or theatrical entertainments. They were literally, an audience, they depended on the spoken language. This language is what author John Barton has called ‘heightened language’:

Any bit of the text where there are images and metaphors and similes or rich, surprising language” to communicate the descriptive elements of all the text [2]

The Elizabethan’s depended on the spoken word. Their sense of hearing was aided with a much sharper ear. They were ‘seeing’ with their ears as well as their eyes. Barton again:

It was like food, and they probably used words much more sensually, almost eating words.[2]

Indeed, eating words, both the speaker and the listener. These words, must be chosen, coined with clear understanding of the intention of the character by the actors, and be relished with vocal colourings to show the ‘how’ that it is being used, to achieve the objective . It is a word by word thought process acknowledging and using, as well, the editor’s given syntax – it requires a heightened imaginative approach to the language and a formidable, flexible vocal technique.

The acting of Shakespeare requires a fine balance between the naturalistic and heightened elements – the marrying of the Modern and Elizabethan style, striking the right balance. The BALANCE.

It seemed to me, that Mr Pollard, as Leontes, was not able to balance the essential needs of the two traditions. Feeling, not thinking dominated his choices. Emotions not crafted choices were his offers to us. The Modern tradition was the easiest for him. He had an intelligent grasp of what he was saying and why, he comprehended the emotional undercurrents of Leontes’ dilemma but then allowed himself, at the performance I saw, wallow, egregiously, in them. Perhaps the heightened imagery of the written language and the heightened stakes of the manner required of him to perform the material, broke through his craft skills of discipline. But, whatever the cause, his instrumental technique was limited, the body wracked with visible tensions so that it could barely squeeze out the sense clues, which were further obfuscated with a thrusting head/jaw, (oh, for an Alexander teacher to hold that head still!), which became a substituted method to attempt to emphasise, signal, what he could not communicate with his voice. The dynamic range – the ‘musical’ notes were shallow, narrow, and they became strangled in the emotional entanglements, the breath of experiencing the generating emotions overwhelming the technical resources required to speak the text with any real language clarity. We had no clear understanding of why this King was in such a physical state, as his textual communication was buried in physical tensions of self indulged emotional generalisations. Mr Pollard knew what was happening to Leontes, but his communication of his ‘plotted’ emotional journey, really, was essentially for himself. He enjoyed his performance enormously, he seemed to be watching himself and applauding himself in the moment to moment, and did not provide a single thoughtful communication to the audience of what he knew – there were no readable, selected clues for us to observe and endow.We were invited to watch this actor in wracked extremis. He did not appear to have the control of technique to deliver the Elizabethan Tradition of Playing Shakespeare.

Here is a competent modern actor, apparently, without the skills to deliver this heightened material, the other tradition. How did this happen in the Bell Company, where one presumes they have a wide and excited number of actors eager to play with them? to try this role? Leontes is famously a difficult task for any actor and a challenge. Who would not want the chance? Mr Pollard’s strengths appear to be: intelligence, pleasing physical dimensions (ideal for television, it seems), and passions, but, from what we witnessed, at the moment, lacks the essential skills, imperative for this heightened expression of work. If our leading character is unable to communicate to us, what will our experience of THE WINTER’S TALE be, but a catch-if-catch-can of the emotional gist of the story, without any of the clarifying language detail of the Elizabethan Tradition to deliver it, or, reveal the poetic language heritage of our culture – surely, a responsibility that the Bell Company have taken as their prideful task in the twenty-first century. With this casting, this production was a failure. How does that happen?

Ms Thomson, as Hermione, handled her text in the modern tradition capably but, too, does not have the vocal equipment to keep the language word by word alive – it was delivered in recited phrases and sentences, paragraphs. Mr Pollard and Ms Thomson chose to work in fairly broad Australian music vowels and tones, so that the King and Queen of Sicilia became Mr and Mrs Five Dock, suburban contemporaries, and so, gave diminished stakes to the drama of the writing. Indicative of the reading from Ms Thomson, under the guidance of Mr Bell, Ms Thomson, in the trial scene, seemed more struck with the painful birthing of her child and the absence of her son, taking a beautiful heart felt illumination, with a heightened naturalistic pause mid-way through her verse lines, into the pain of that loss, rather than moving forward to the cumulative apex of the Elizabethan concern in the actual writing in the speech we were listening to:

… mistake me not – no life – I prize it not a straw, – but for mine honour (which I would set free) …

“For mine honour.” Her loss of honour, is her principal grief, she says, whatever may be a mother’s truth. There is the place, if it is necessary, to take that emotional depth charged pause, not at the loss of her children – which is a very relatively, recent mid-twentieth century concept.

I was acutely aware that both Mr Pollard and Ms Thomson were more vivid and engaged, more convincing for the audience in their storytelling, in the playing with the low status of their other casting as the Old Shepherd and Mopsa in the fourth act. This is where they were comfortable, apparently, not in the high status demands of Leontes and Hermione.

To throw more rudely into contrast the inadequacies of the two leading actors in this production, Michelle Doake, as Paulina, gave a performance of such incisive wit, character, and clarity of voice and body, balancing the Two Traditions with such ease and control that it was an embarrassment of riches and a blatant contrast, that showed what is possible from a modern, prepared artist, and the glories of the Shakespearean tradition of character, story and language. Ms Doake was the only consistent performer of the formidable Two Traditions that John Barton advocates. How is that possible from the Bell Shakespeare Company? Philip Dodd, Felix Jozeps, Justin Smith and sometimes, Dorian Nkono (in the first half of the play – lost for clear judgment choices in the fourth act) had those skills. Terry Serio was handicapped with his clown Autolycus with a music score by Alan Johns that did not feel authentic to his musical skills, or suit the necessary function of the energy needs of the scene (Sound Design by Nate Edmondson).  Liana Cornell was youthfully pleasant as a light weight Perdita, but vocally under attached, while Rory Potter, as the leading character of this production, Mamillius, dressed and bewanded like Harry Potter, was not able to handle the extra responsibilities of TIME with any but a well read recitation of truncated text.

I wonder if the skills of the acting from some of the principals had been ‘better’ whether I would have dwelt so much on the production ‘spring board’, ‘point-of-view’. For, certainly when Ms Doake was onstage, one became so engaged with the drama of the story, the brilliance of the argument (comic mockery and all), and the marvelling at and in the language, that there was no time for dwelling on the oddity of the concept. One was swept along, and all those issues became wholly secondary to the experience. With Ms Doake in action, there was no time to think about anything but what was happening in front of you, no spare time to nit-pick.

And, after all, I have brought to task some of our musical theatre artists,  (SWEET CHARITY), and I need to be just as rigorous about these actors in heightened, classic text, about the application and preparation of technical skills – which are basically just ‘animal’ skills that can be trained, practised (and need to be). For these skills are only ‘athletic ‘muscles’ that can be brought to prime optimums, just as the winning sportsman’s muscles are, to win the ‘game’, the gold medal.

Preparation is all. For Playing Shakespeare it must be of an Olympian scale.

This production of THE WINTER’S TALE was a barely adequate approximation of story and, certainly, no benchmark of experience, except for the wrong reasons. I am tense about approximates from our leading companies. With the opportunity to see international companies, even if they are projected broadcasts, they do set a standard of expectation. They also, sadly, offer an alternative way to see the theatre. At $25-$27 a go, the cinema is an attractive alternative, particularly if you are on a budget. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is better than to be part of live performance, but only if the rehearsed production is playing at some kind of real rigour. Not self-indulgence or near enoughs. Even failure if played at a glorious 150% can be thrilling to watch and share. I reckon, find the best writing and simply trust it and bring it to the stage with skilled artists/craftsmen, and you will have an audience. One does not need a gimmick. One does not need television or film stars to attract an audience, one just needs skills that match the demands of the writing and the form it has been written for, and quality, quality, quality will be there. Build it and they will come.

Analysis completed, sort of. There are other things, but, enough is enough.

I did not have a good time, at Bell Shakespeare. Again.

  1. Norrie Epstein, 1993, The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books.
  2. John Barton, 1984, Playing Shakespeare, Methuen.
  3. Harold C. Goddard, 1951, The Meaning of Shakespeare. Volume 2, University of Chicago Press.