The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare.
Directed by John Basil
March 13-April 5, 2008
American Globe Theater, New York
Elizabeth Keefe and richard Fay. Photo: David Laundra
“The Winter’s Tale” is fiendishly difficult to play convincingly, it maybe WS’s most difficult. Many speeches are unspeakable to the modern ear. None of the three (?) plots is compelling. The inclusive one concerns a baby girl exposed and left to die, but rescued by happenstance by a passing shepherd A pot of gold left with her rewards his virtue, while alluding to the possibility that she is more than an ordinary infant. Sixteen years pass. She is raised to beautiful girlhood by the benevolent shepherd–country people are good, courtiers bad. She, of course, knows nothing of her origins, thereby satisfying the universal adolescent illusion of yet undiscovered grand ancestry.
The other plot involves a bad prince in a bad court in Bohemia.(Never mind where; it’s romance) His mirror image is the good prince of Sicilia. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It doesn’t matter since this is a long winter’s tale for a cold night by the fire. Plot sprawls in the direction of each scene. There’s a romance, slight, between the good prince and the secret princess, as the lone infant turns out to be. A cunning clown is the free form commentator and theatrical glue holding the plots together. More or less. The good prince takes the orphan girl for his own, never mind how, and the wicked court is defeated.
Sixteenth century winters kept good burghers at their firesides when theaters were closed against the cold. So they read aloud, which may account for some of the unplayable speeches and improbabilities of plot. Most notably, Antigonus leaving the infant Perdita out of doors as a storm approaches and rushing away “pursued by a bear.” Yet also for some of WS’ most exquisite lines delivered with “throw away” casualness.
John Basil, producing Artistic Director of the American Globe Theatre, is valiant to attempt this work. He wisely lets his great clown sing and dance to take up performance slack, as I’ve implied, so the production pivots on him, the gifted Geoffrey Barnes. His body knows how to fill up the stage with the mimicry and movement of physical comedy. The play’s great role is Autolocus, another great clown unnamed as such.
Otherwise, largely unmotivated action must fill up two and one half hours. The good prince of romance is bound to be bit tiresome. A bad prince always more attractive, but it’s not morally advisable to celebrate wickedness. So, what else but celebrate theatricality, surely what WS did. There is little enough of it written in. Texts typically say little or nothing about stage action. Nor is the play a character study of the sort that anchors the tragedies and to a lesser extent the histories. Like both, however, TWT takes monarchy as central, vital and jeopardized by evil. The difference in the romances is that evil is concentrated beyond any resemblance to true psychology of character and is purged more completely than imaginable. Leontes is at once weak willed, tyrannical, and not credibly either, as he shows in his dilemma about what to do with the infant Perdita.
I am a feather for each wind that blows.
Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel
And call me father? Better burn it now
Than curse it then. But be it. Let it live.
It shall not neither. You sir come you hither:
(To Antigonus)...What will you adventure
To save this brat’s life? (II.3.154 ff)
TWT ends with the powerful rulers seeing and correcting their bad behavior. Florizel’s father, King of Sicilia nearly says as much. I annotate: ‘come for a visit; all past dangers have fallen away in my new perspective on life.’ So, a coherent psychology of behavior is simply not available. Any such view is read into the text based, as I’ve said, on our experience of earlier plays.