The Winter’s Tale reads like a Bronx cheer to Shakespeare’s rival, Ben Jonson.
Why does Leontes go stark raving mad in The Winter’s Tale? The King of Sicilia looks to have it all. His beautiful wife, Hermione, is pregnant with their second child. His son, Mamillius, is a constant joy. And his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has been a guest for the past nine months. Their shared youth was so innocent, both insist, they could have stood before heaven and said “not guilty.”
Polixenes must leave before the “sneaping winds” of winter reach his kingdom. Out of the blue, Leontes becomes convinced his wife and best friend are lovers. Polixenes has been in Sicilia how long? “Nine changes of the watery star”?
Who knows why Leontes goes off? Attempts to pinpoint a cause to reduce the dramatic impact. Leontes erupts in the same way that, according to Clausius’s Law of Thermodynamics, all the air molecules could suddenly flood to one corner of a room. What matters is not the cause but the effect: Leontes’s paranoid ravings trigger a chain reaction that suffocates everyone he holds dear.
Courageous Paulina, who dares to confront the king, swears he could spend the next 10,000 years atop a barren mountain, naked and fasting, and still suffer a “winter perpetual” of despair.
Paulina implies that it would take longer for her to forgive the king. But when the play sweeps forward 16 years, both have changed. And she stage manages a miracle of rebirth: a “statue” of Hermione undergoes a kind of spring thaw and comes to life again.
Shakespeare’s rival Ben Jonson ripped into the Bard for abusing the unities of time and place (one locale, 24 hours). The Winter’s Tale reads like a Bronx cheer to Jonson. It begins in cold Sicilia, where family ties get sheared to their roots. After a devastating storm, the second half sheds its winter coat, literally, at a sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia. Leontes’s daughter, Perdita (“lost”), is now a young woman garlanded by the flowers of spring.
Such a grand, un-Jonsonian sweep lets Shakespeare display the multiple effects of Time. Like the cycle of the seasons, Time can heal, restore, and germinate anew. But, as Sonnet 64 attests, Time is a destroyer that will “come and take my love away.”
The sweep breaks down every theatrical barrier that Shakespeare inherited. It also gives him the scope to demonstrate that the only absolute is change. In effect, the play moves from Yin to Yang, but that Yin is always within Yang, and vice versa.
Time is the central symbol in Barry Edelstein’s staging at the Old Globe. A metronome, ticking on a miniature grand piano, sets the pre-show tone. And when Time the Chorus speaks in Act Four, scene one, 17 metronomes accompany him.
Opening nights can be strange affairs: excited audiences; scribbling critics; self-proclaimed “plants” overreacting to influence favorable opinion (and throwing off the actors’ timing); and a cast, ready or not, under pressure. The Old Globe’s opening was also Barry Edelstein’s directorial debut since becoming artistic director. So many points of intersection led to mixed results.
First-night jitters might explain why much of Act One was a melodramatic shouting match. With few exceptions, actors pushed hard and colored the words with generalized emotions. All could heed Kristen Linklater’s advice for doing Shakespeare: “Don’t color the words, let the words color you.”
A piano pounding jagged chords added to the soap-operatic tone. Many in the cast settled in by Act Two, but deliveries remained heavy-handed. Those that weren’t stood out: Natacha Roi layered all four seasons into her excellent portrayal of Hermione; A.Z. Kelsey’s Florizel spoke trippingly on the tongue. Kelsey fused feelings, thoughts, and words on the spot, as did Kushtrim Hoxa (Cleomenes and Time), and Paul Michael Valley’s Polixenes, especially when he threatened to become a second Leontes.
The production is set in a sort of today: high-rise windows for Sicilia; a drab brown wall, tree trunks, and flowers blooming downstage for Bohemia.
The choice reduces King Leontes’s sphere of influence. Billy Campbell’s uneven performance wavered between being responsible for an entire kingdom and a one-note, psychotic CEO.
Many images arrest: pieces of paper flickering down like snow (a slight suggestion of 9/11?); strings of lightning-bulbs; the infamous bear in triplicate, with Sasquatch-long arms (you can almost hear Bobo Faye, the star of Finding Bigfoot, proclaiming that “Bohemia is Squatchy”).
The final stage pictures arrest most of all: Hermione’s majestic “statue” glitters like a religious icon. Forgiveness reigns. But, with an expressive touch not in the script, so does profound loss.
- The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
- Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
- Directed by Barry Edelstein; cast: Billy Campbell, Angel Desai, Natacha Roi, Paul Michael Valley, Cornell Womack, Brendan Spieth, Jordi Bertran, Meaghan Boeing, Lindsay Brill; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Fitz Patton; original music, Michael Torke