The Winter’s Tale is Alexandra Rego’s favourite Shakespeare play, whereas Elliot Douglas only knew of “Exit, pursued by a bear” before Mermaids’ production of the notorious ‘problem-play’. Our Deputy Editor and Editor-in-Chief, respectively, offer their perspectives in this unprecedented double review.
To be frank, I’m not sure if I’m the most equipped person to review The Winter’s Tale; it’s been my favourite play by Shakespeare for quite some time and I was a bit shocked to hear (via a friend) that it’s the “hipster move” to prefer it. So in true “indie” “hipster” form, I was a little sceptical that a production so late in the semester would do such an intricate play justice. I was delightfully proven wrong. Under the studied direction of Caitlin Morris, The Winter’s Tale offered several strong performances and successfully conveyed the play’s complexities.
The Winter’s Tale is ultimately a play concerning the contrasts between sanity and insanity, art and artifice, drama and comedy, and two neighbouring kingdoms, Bohemia and Sicilia. The first act is something of a psychological drama in which Leontes, King of Sicilia, accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (yes, this play potentially inspired Hermione Granger’s name…), of infidelity. The second act takes place some sixteen years later, in Bohemia, and sees the main characters reunited under very different circumstances.
The role of Leontes is offers some of the most difficult character work in (I think) all of Shakespeare; a successful performance requires the actor to shift almost immediately between fondness and jealousy, sanity and insanity. Daniel Jonusas took on the challenge with aplomb, and his unstable character was all the more believable for his work, particularly in silent moments between Jonusas and another actor. Of the actors onstage, his performance was the most developed and consistent. Other standouts were Georgia Luckhurst as the much-put-upon Camillo (poor Camillo…), and Annabel Steele as the equally put-upon (but far less pliant) Paulina.
Morris staged The Winter’s Tale in the round: the set comprised of white blocks used interchangeably as pedestals and chairs, and a few hanging gauze curtains that seemed more appropriate in the first act than the second. Tonal shifts in lighting (the work, I believe, of Grace Cowie and Joshua Undy-Jamison) ensured that there was a distinct look and feel to the separate kingdoms: Sicilia more glacial, Bohemia warm. These technological details were for the most part handled smoothly and did not overshadow the actors, all the more likely to happen in such a stark set up. I didn’t mind the minimalism of the set; if anything, it gave the actors more space in which to focus on maintaining the psychological arc and drama of the first act, then the comedy and lightness of the second.
However, while I appreciated seeing this play in the round, I would argue that the space and its geometry often felt inappropriately used. On a few rare occasions (in the second act), actors engaged with the audience, but this was far more distracting than constructive, or even constructively distracting. Furthermore, the second act’s dance sequence, which struck me as an opportune moment to involve the audience (this is my nightmare, but still…), fell flat. One other criticism I had was that in the sixteen years that spaced the first and second act, none of the characters seemed to have aged at all. At one stage Paulina refers to herself as an “old turtle”, which, while hilarious, was perhaps rendered all too comic without the assistance of aging makeup.
As is the case with almost any modern student adaptation of Shakespeare, making cuts and deciding which scenes to showcase can be an incredibly difficult decision with no right answer. On the whole Morris seemed to take a traditional approach, which I do not think in any way hurt the production. However, I was shocked to see that the first act did not feature Shakespeare’s most infamous stage directions: “exit, pursued by a bear”. This became an object of confusion in the second act, in which a bear was alluded to, but seemed so absurd that the audience laughed to an inappropriate degree.
A few minor plot holes, undoubtedly due to poor directorial cutting, rendered an already complex narrative either too comic or dramatic at times, but I would say that Morris did an admirable job in ensuring that character-defining moments remained in place. Again, this production was all about its actors, and the audience still got a strong sense of each character (Polixenes’s theatricality, Hermione’s regality). Overall, strong performances from the leads and an unpretentious set up allowed talented actors to shine in a notoriously difficult play to direct.
Rating: Four stars
I knew absolutely nothing about The Winter’s Tale before I went to see the Mermaids’ version last week, apart from the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” line which greeted me (laminated, in Comic Sans font) every day for a year on the classroom door of my high school English teacher. This is probably quite an embarrassing admission to make as a fifth-year English student at a top UK university (citation needed). However, this meant that all of Shakespeare’s 500-year-old twists and turns were brand new to me, and I ooh’ed and aah’ed my way through Caitlin Morris’ neatly cut-down production in what, I’m sure my fellow audience members will agree, proved to be an obnoxious fashion.
The play, in short, was tremendous fun. The ensemble cast worked cohesively together, and moments of tension and comedy were well directed. The tragic hyperbole of Daniel Jonusas, Emma Gylling Mortensen and Annabel Steele’s performances was perfectly pitched: realistic enough to genuinely tug at the heartstrings, but camp enough to keep in line with the exaggerated drama. The play’s most tragic moments – the death of a child, for one, adorably played by Cameron Chavers – were jarring in the context of this melodrama, but I believe this was deliberately and effectively done to catch the audience off guard.
The denizens of Bohemia – present in the play’s lighter, second half – offered some nice comic relief, with Morgan Corby and Georgie Turner worthy of special mention. The dance scene was a nice touch and there were big laughs for Coggin Galbreath’s “disguise”. However, I would have liked to see a greater distinction between the characterisations of the Sicilians and the Bohemians, and perhaps a more interesting use of staging to illuminate this. A few of the actors seemed a little uncertain how to play their roles and whether they should be performing in a comedy or a tragedy. Wikipedia informs me that five centuries of Shakespeare scholarship also cannot make up their mind, so this is not perhaps a fair criticism – but while this disparity could have added to the unsettling nature of some of dichotomies in the play, in the event it took away from certain performances.
Additionally, the staging of the play in the round was somewhat underused and added little to the performance. There were moments where it felt like the actors had been directed to perform in proscenium arch but had unexpectedly walked out onto the wrong set and were forced to do their best under the circumstances. I also felt that the technicians could have made more of the lighting opportunities in the Stage, although this was one instance where the distinction between Bohemia and Sicilia was nicely done.
There is probably a reason why The Winter’s Tale is a less performed Shakespeare and overcoming some of the issues raised here would have floored many a more experienced director. Overall, Morris created a funny and suitably traditional show which kept the audience amply engaged and entertained. Sadly, the bear did not make the final cut – but I’ll forgive the crew for not attempting to deal with this particular hurdle.
Rating: Four stars
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