Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Winter’s Tale

Polixenes, Hermione, Leontes: jealousy

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare.
Bell Shakespeare directed by John Bell; designer Stephen Curtis; lighting by Matthew Marshall; composer Alan John; sound designer Nate Edmondson; dramaturg John Kachoyan.  At the Sydney Opera House Playhouse: Season (including previews) March 1 – 29, 2014.

Paulina, Leontes: redemption

Polixenes, Leontes, Hermione, Camillo:

    Leontes/Old Shepherd             Myles Pollard
    Hermione/Mopsa                      Helen Thomson
    Paulina/Dorcas                         Michelle Doake
    Polixenes                                  Dorian Nkono
    Camillo                                     Philip Dodd
    Antigonus/Autolycus                Terry Serio
    Cleomenes/Florizel                  Felix Jozeps
    Dion/Young Shepherd             Justin Smith
    Emilia/Perdita                          Liana Cornell
    Mamillius                                 Otis Pavlovic / Rory Potter

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night March 12


That’s all I really need to say about this original interpretation of The Winter’s Tale.

But I want to say more: about how and why it works so well, and something about this production’s significance.

The Winter’s Tale and King Lear have always puzzled me on one point: why did Shakespeare let key characters – Leontes’ son Mamillius and Lear’s Fool – just insignificantly die.  They fade from the drama without much ado.  Late in Lear we hear that the Fool has been hanged.  In the Tale Mamillius sickens, but we do not see his death – despite the crucial role he plays in Leontes’ psychological state – and even his memory is effectively replaced by his long-lost sister, Perdita.

John Bell has solved my puzzle.  He was, I guess, impressed as I was by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1969 setting – in the famous ‘white box’ – of The Winter’s Tale, which we saw on their Australian tour in 1970.  Here’s Trevor Nunn’s image of the story beginning in the child’s nursery.
Trevor Nunn's 1969 production of The Winter's Tale was designed by Christopher Morley and featured Judi Dench as Hermione. Photo shows Act 2, Scene 1 with Hermione (Judi Dench), Mamillius (Sam Rich, centre) and Leontes (Barrie Ingham).

Photo by Reg Wilson.

The key that Bell has found to unlock the puzzle is to set the whole play in Mamillius’ nursery.  It is a fairy story, told to us by the young boy as if the adults are like the toys that come alive in Léonide Massine’s ballet La Boutique Fantasque, though rather more like something from the brothers Grimm collection.  Although they were called "Children's Tales", they were not regarded as suitable for children, both for the scholarly information included and the subject matter.[Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, p15-17 quoted in Wikipedia ]

In Bell’s play, Mamillius does not die for us, but becomes a kind of wizard – rather like Prospero in The Tempest – as he plays the Oracle from Delphi with a magic wand that creates magnificent lightning and thunder.  This is a young boy at play, but his story is for adults.

And so, for the first time for me, even including the Trevor Nunn version, the revelation of the statue of Hermione, brought to life by the touch of her son’s spirit, brought real tears to my eyes.  At last The Winter’s Tale made sense, from the psychosis of Leonte’s irrational jealousy in falsely believing in Hermione’s and Polixene’s perfidy, to the importance of rational, clear-minded people like Paulina and Camillo, and to the possibility – or at least the hope – of redemption and reconcilation.

And, although I highly praise all the cast and stage creative team, I am left with a special sense of the enjoyment in performing for the young boy Mamillius – Rory Potter for me, and Otis Pavlovic on other nights – when he points his Oracle’s wand and creates wonderful lighting and sound effects, or plays with his torch to create the shadow of his teddy bear as it pursues the hapless innocent, honest and trustworthy Antigone to his gory death, or conducts puppet conversations among his soft toys, and finally as he brings his mother back to life. 

What a tremendous experience this must be for these young boys, just as this production is a beautiful theatrical work of art for its adult audience.

Otis Pavlovic as Mamillius, Terry Serio as Autolycus
Felix Jozeps as Florizel, Liana Cornell as Perdita
Michelle Doake as Dorcas, Terry Serio as Autolycus, Helen Thomson as Mopsa,
Otis Pavlovic (part hidden) and Justin Smith as Young Shepherd

Rory Potter as Mamillius as Oracle of Delphi
 Photos: Michele Mossop

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