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The Winter’s Tale

A Winter’s Tale by the Book

Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.
Sunday, August 7, 2011, A–105&107 (center left stalls)
Directed by David Farr

What I consider Shakespeare’s best plays are King Lear, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV, Part 1. The Winter’s Tale is, in my opinion, one of Shakespeare’s more middling works.

Greg Hicks changed my mind. His portrayal of Leontes elevated The Winter’s Tale to Top Five status. Here is a play that pointedly portrays the rash descent into jealousy, and even though the change in mood comes on one line—“Too hot, too hot!”—with Hicks the moment did not come across as a too-sudden passion or arbitrary plot-driver. His Leontes let creep through some expressions of concern leading up to his “Too hot!” moment, and he spoke that soliloquy as the other actors shifted into slow motion. The part’s richness further emerged as Leontes became so settled into his delusion that it framed his every thought. Here was a conspiracy theorist personified, for not only did he quickly and thoroughly, in his mind, dismiss all contrary facts, he lumped anybody disagreeing with him as agents of the conspiracy. Even God’s word (or, in the play, Apollo’s) Leontes saw as incorrectly interpreted because it didn’t fit his perspective. This is a conspiracy-inspired paranoia we see all the time on the Web, and, watching this production I was struck by how much Leontes resembled a man who, when I was editor of The Officer magazine, kept hounding me with his theory that the Pentagon was never struck by an airliner on September 11, 2001, stretching circumstantial evidence to match his belief.

Leontes’ dramatic arc continued, however, as a man who finally realized his mistake and the tragedy his delusion brought about. Hicks just as realistically maneuvered through this transition, and when next we saw him near the end of the play, we fully felt his 16-year-long depression. Hicks’ Leontes was a man who deserved everything that happened to him: the death of his son, the temporary loss of his best friend, the seeming loss of his wife and daughter. And so, the reunion with friend, wife, and daughter came at a point when such a moment could only be, in his mind, an unfathomable miracle. All of this was a perspective and heavy emotional burden that Hicks courageously carried. His was truly a great Shakespearean performance.

He wasn’t alone, however. John Mackay brought emotional heft to Camillo, one of the play’s most important characters, yet one easily overlooked. Mackay’s Camillo couldn’t even hope to fathom Leontes’ assertions, and he similarly had to balance his sense of duty with his assessment of a situation while serving Polixenes in Bohemia. Noma Dumezweni’s Paulina was not a mean nagger, but rather a woman whose stubbornness was rooted firmly in a moral foundation (obvious to the other courtiers who were not merely afraid of her but genuinely respected her). She didn’t sadistically torment Leontes over the years; she just made sure he stayed on course for the ending Apollo promised (after all, she knew Hermione was still alive).

Kelly Hunter’s Hermione was the most pregnant of women ever (it looked like she was carrying quadruplets, or Perdita came into this world weighing a couple dozen pounds), but saddled with such a physical discomfort she actively strove to maintain a pleasant demeanor. That strength came to the fore when, in a nightgown stained with the blood of childbirth, she valiantly withstood Leontes’ accusations in the trial sequence. As the sculpture come to life, Hunter seemed to be coming out of a trance rather than merely posing as a statue, greeting with surprise the presence of Leontes and the presentation of both Polixenes and Perdita.

The other star of this production was Jon Bausor’s set. The to-the-light-grid-tall bookcases of the Sicilian palace toppled over during the sea storm on the way to Bohemia, and those scattered piles of books and ripped-out sheets became the Bohemian landscape. The 12 satyrs at the sheep-sheering feast wore books strung together into tunics and did a vulgar tribal dance prominently featuring their, um, gourds as Perdita (Samantha Young) and Florizel (Tunji Kasim) gyrated to the music up in a tree. It was a rambunctious party that should have effectively set up Polixenes revealing himself and dissipating all that joy with his rage toward his son and his ugly threats aimed at Perdita and her supposed father. However, Darrell D’Silva playing the Bohemian king didn’t master his shifting emotions with the kind of deftness that would have made us feel anybody was in real danger. Besides, Camillo quickly set the reconciliation plot in motion.

Then there was the bear, a giant puppet appearing in the darkened back of the stage (its fur also made up of book pages) operated by three stagehands. Antigonus (David Rubin) didn’t actually exit being chased by the bear; rather he ran into the bear to be caught up in its claws and teeth, which was an effective enough rendering of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction.

Special Note: Larrington Walker played the Old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, Perdita’s surrogate father who puts his age at “fourscore three.” He also played the “almost fourscore” Adam in As You Like It, and in King Lear he was the “fourscore” tenant who led the blinded Gloucester to Poor Tom. Walker played the ageless but (probably fourscore) soothsayer in Julius Caesar, too, but in that play he also got to skew younger and set aside his weary limbs by playing Strato, who held Brutus’s sword for the latter’s suicidal thrust.

Eric Minton
August 10, 2011

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