The Winter's Tale
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
November 3, 2005
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare has provided some intriguing challenges for whichever collective of artists mean to undertake the project. Three such challenges are (in increasing order of difficulty, by my estimation at least): fantastical stage effects (a man eaten by a bear; a statue turning into a live woman); a curious mix of styles (the first half is Lear-like tragedy, whilst the second portrays a kind of frivolity that would make Twelfth Night look bleak); and a protagonist whose initial behavior is such that any actor would be hard-pressed to make the character sympathetic. Propeller, the British all-male Shakespeare troupe led by Edward Hall, does an exceptional job with the former two, but this last problem remains.... well…. problematic.
The unsympathetic behavior to which I am referring is this: King Leontes of Sicilia, ensconced at home and surrounded by loved ones, is struck with the sudden suspicion that his queen Hermione has had or plans to have adulterous relations with Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (and Leontes’s dearest friend). The seed of this rapidly blossoming sexual jealousy is an innocuous exchange between Hermione and Polixenes in which she politely implores him to stay a week longer rather than depart the following day. In short order, Leontes devises an ultimately unsuccessful plan to poison Polixenes and then brings Hermione to trial for her supposed crime. Despite very convincing pleas by his subjects (most notably a nervy noblewoman named Paulina, whom we’ll return to shortly), and even a note from the Oracle exonerating the queen, Leontes will not be swayed. Moments after he pronounces the Oracle invalid, a servant announces that his young son Mamillius has been found dead and Hermione dies instantly of a broken heart.
As noted above, the second half is sunny and droll: set in Bohemia 16 years later, and centering around Polixenes’s son who has fallen for a young shepherdess, Perdita, much to the king’s angered dismay. Little do they—or she, for that matter—know that she is the daughter of Leontes and Hermione, who was whisked off to the neighboring kingdom as an infant just after her mother’s death. (Her rescuer, by the way, is the one who is eaten by a bear.) The young lovers flee, ending up in Sicilia where a remorseful King Leontes recognizes Perdita as his daughter, the two kings reunite as friends, and a stone statue of Hermione comes to life and the two presumably resume their marriage with a renewed appreciation and sense of gravity.
Propeller works as a true corps: they skillfully accomplish the fantastical elements of The Winter’s Tale, but really throughout they simultaneously create and populate a world with a witty and theatrical naturalism. They make whole these two halves—the heavy tragedy and light comedy; they make it seamless, in fact. And, with a powerful performance by Vince Leigh as Leontes, do their very best to make human (and therefore, compelling) both his horrific misjudgment and his deep need of redemption.
But this is where even a superb company such as Propeller (whose performers are, across the board, exquisite) cannot make me feel a genuine empathy (only an intellectual sympathy) for this tragic figure. Sexual jealousy is certainly not without my realm of personal experience, but I never felt myself on Leontes's side the way that I do with Lear, who too makes his deeply unwise decision within the first ten minutes of stage time. Perhaps this is a part of Hall’s intention—for us to watch the irrational actions of a foolish but powerful man motivated by something quite other than the good of his kingdom, to the kingdom’s severe detriment. (Should I now point out the somewhat crude but rather obvious parallels to our current leader and those darned elusive WMDs?)
However, we do not feel an absence. With the help of a bravura performance by Adam Levy, Hall has relocated the center of the play from Leontes to Paulina, that fireball of a lady who staunchly defends the honor of her queen. Levy’s fierce creature is strong-willed without being self-righteous, and indeed seems surprised by her own ferociousness. I was most moved seeing her with the king 16 years later, reminding him (with gentle frankness) of his lamentable decision. She is the torchbearer who will not let this tragedy recede into darkness, and the king, brimming with contrition, appreciates her for this.
Just as she has sculpted the statue that will be brought to life, so Paulina brings out the humanity in Leontes, ultimately transforming him into a man for whom we can find some approximation of respect. Would that all “kings” would keep such wise counsel.