Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’: The mini-series

What if Northwest Classical Theatre Company's production lasted a LOT longer?

 

Matt Smith (Polixines), Grant Turner (Leontes), and Anne Sorce (Hermione) In Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s production of

Matt Smith (Polixines), Grant Turner (Leontes), and Anne Sorce (Hermione) In Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s production of “The Winter’s Tale”/Photo: Jason Maniccia

Northwest Classical Theatre Company is staging a solid version of “The Winter’s Tale” right now at the Shoebox Theater, which true to its name is about as intimate an environment for theater as you can find in Portland. Solid is actually high praise for productions of “A Winter’s Tale,” about as difficult a play to embrace as Shakespeare offers. I simply mean that it is well-considered by the director, John Steinkamp, and well-acted by the cast, who dive into its crazy plot (which Shakespeare lifted from Robert Greene’s “Pondosto”) with gusto and good cheer.

This version of “The Winter’s Tale” moves along swiftly, though it lasts around three hours (including intermission). The plot is that snakey. And it squeezes both court dancing and country revels onto the tiny stage, along with some clowning. Clearing up all the loose ends of the plot leads to a lengthy last act, but even that doesn’t seem too long in this production.

Before I finish, though, I’m going to argue (gulp) that three hours isn’t long enough, but first a little exposition.

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“A Winter’s Tale,” like “As You Like It” before it, is a play divided between court and country. At court, Sicilia’s King Leontes has hosted his dear friend, Bohemia’s King Polixenes, for nine months. That seems like quite the vacation, but such visits weren’t unheard of in Shakespeare’s time. From out of nowhere, Leontes becomes utterly convinced that his blameless wife Hermione and Polixenes are sharing inside lips, and that the child that swells her belly was sired by Polixenes. His evidence is delirious:

“Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? — a note infallible
Of breaking honesty; — horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?”

I’m not exactly sure what horsing foot on foot is, but I know all about skulking in corners! The rest of the court tries to talk him out of this sudden jealousy. They know Hermione’s character and her love for Leontes, but he won’t be moved. And we in the audience hate him for it, just like we hate Othello for doubting Desdemona, except that Othello’s been duped and he’s an outsider. Leontes’ is seized with fictions he himself devises. He’s worse.

Plot, plot, plot, Polixenes escapes, the queen bears a daughter, she seems to die from the stress of her “trial,” her daughter is left to perish in the bear-infested woods off the seacoast of Bohemia (geography really isn’t the play’s strongest suit), Leontes finally realizes he was an idiot and enters a deep depression.

This first half is most often played as darkly and starkly as possible. A production in the lush scenic wonderland that Oregon Shakespeare Festival can create played it all in black and deep red. Life at court is devilish.

And then things change completely, because in the second half we land in rural Bohemia among the shepherds and villagers. It’s Arden maybe without so many trees.

Plot, plot, plot, the daughter, Perdita, is found and raised by kindly rustics and grows up gorgeous, she is wooed by Polixenes’ son Florizel (who disguises himself as a commoner), comic interludes erupt mainly around the grifter Autolycus, Perdita and the son are forbidden to marry and flee to Sicilia, where you just know things are going to be revealed and to a certain extent injuries will be remedied.

The characters themselves are almost commedia-like in their simplicity. Leontes makes the biggest turn, from insanely jealous to abjectly penitent, and this is always hard to pull off convincingly. Why would we ever forgive him? Grant Turner (the company’s artistic director) plays him about as well as he can be managed—as someone always living out his emotional present. I liked the honest grace that Anne Sorce gives Hermione, the risky comic business of Winston Bischof as Autolycus, and the resolute Christy Drogosch who speaks truth to power as Paulina, though I thought the cast generally able tellers of this tale.

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So, “The Winter’s Tale” is not Shakespeare at his best, right? Marjorie Garber, the Harvard Shakespeare scholar, would disagree. Although I think her reading of the play in “Shakespeare After All,” overcomplicates it a bit, she corrects the idea that nothing very much is going on inside this fable about jealousy. “The resonances of “The Winter’s Tale”—a very great play—are poetic and mythic, political and ethical, not narrowly historical or personal.”

Garber points us in the right direction to appreciate “The Winter’s Tale” at the very least, and I’m going to focus on the first one, “poetic.” I don’t mean “lyrical” or “pretty” or “graceful” by “poetry.” I mean (and I think Garber does, too!) a careful attention to words and how they investigate, describe and shape something we might call “reality,” at least the reality of the action on the stage. A lot of this is interior reality, a sketch of the characters’ feelings and thoughts, their explanations to themselves and then to others. And it uses the tools of poetry—word choice, meter, rhythm and then the extended metaphor—to do this probing.

So right, plot, plot, plot. But the real action is inside the language, where Shakespeare digs, parses, makes distinctions, symbolizes, repeats and then varies, enters the gray matter of characters and then the gray zone of the world they attempt to encompass. Shakespeare’s subjects are time (one of his favorites), love, knowledge. It’s exciting.

Garber picks apart this particular passage:

“…There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The’abhorred ingredient to this eyes, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
with violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.”

This is Leontes, and he has invented the spider (the imaginary relationship between Polixenes and Hermione), and the false knowledge, Garber continues, infects him, a word Shakespeare uses a lot in the play. The problem is that a king infected causes a gigantic amount of harm, not because he successfully convinces anyone else of his charge against Hermione, because he doesn’t (not even the oracle of Apollo). His illness, his jealousy, is awful because of how much power he has.

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As “The Winter’s Tale” coursed past me, I did not focus at all on these lines about the spider. I don’t blame the actor, because Turner was just fine: I was jsut too busy managing the plot. And if I took time out to pay close attention to any particular juicy passage, I would have missed the next few jumps. At least. Our Shakespeare practice in general, not just at Northwest Classical Theatre, is dedicated to the storytelling of the plays, which means lots of physical shtick and a very fast verbal pace.

Because I’ve seen a few productions of the play and I’m interested in Elizabethan views of health, medicine and disease (Shakespeare borrows Hippocrates for his description of the death of Falstaff), I noted the fevers and the infections in the script, but I didn’t DO much with them. I didn’t compare them, relish them, turn them over in my mind.

I didn’t even pause when Florizel says this: “…When you do dance, I wish you/A wave o’th’ sea, that you might ever do/Nothing but that, move still, still so,/And own no other function.” Garber talks about the miracle of “move still, still so,” such a fine articulation of moving image in the mind’s eye that we imagine continuing forever.

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Clara Hillier as Mopsa and Tom Walton as Clown/Northwest Classica Theatre Company

Clara Hillier as Mopsa and Tom Walton as Clown/Northwest Classica Theatre Company

So, what are we to do?

The running time of this version of “The Winter’s Tale,” which included quite a bit of dancing, even on the tiny stage, and burlesque-y hijinks, was around 3 hours, including an intermission, on the edge of most producers’ idea of what the contemporary audience can tolerate. What if the company taken the time to interpret the poetry as deeply as Shakespeare wrote it? How long would such a play last? Four hours? Five? I’m afraid that might be the case.

We might also trim the play radically, saving only the best bits (whatever we might mean by “best”), and letting the rest go. David Shields, for example, has argued that “Hamlet” is really only the soliloquies and anything more is just theatrical filler. I hate that idea, but I don’t dismiss the idea of cutting completely. The burden of proof is on the editor: What do we lose from the cuts, what do we receive in recompense? And when it comes down to it, how much do we want to cut a “very great play”?

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Let’s say that we locate the essence of “The Winter’s Tale” in the poetry, which arises from the characters and the plot. We value that essence very highly and we want to make sure we slow down things enough for the audience to appreciate it. We agree that for most audiences more than three hours is a bit of a slog, but we don’t want the play to be reduced for all time to a clever reduction.

The only solution left is the mini-series.  Gulp.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, mostly because of the success of such television serials as Masterpiece Theater and various HBO productions. These attract good-sized audiences and are true to the novels they represent (I enjoyed the recent HBO version of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End,” which received mixed reviews, so it’s possible I’m just a sucker for this form…).

And I’ve noted the success that Action Adventure Theatre (and other local companies, especially late-night ones) has had with weekly serials. Usually, these have been comic, often improv shows, to be fair.

To my knowledge, no one has tried the same thing with Shakespeare: take a play like “The Winter’s Tale,” divide it into two (or even three) evenings of two-plus hours each, run the two (or three) in repertory, focus on aspects of the play that generally are overlooked. In “The Winter’s Tale” case that would mean slowing down the language, so the audience (me) has a better chance to savor it.

Are we so dim that we need the help? Well, it’s not a matter of dim, I don’t think. When we hear Shakespeare, we are translating from Elizabethan to Contemporary English. Even slowing things down, we are unlikely to catch the references to Aristotle or Hippocrates in the text of “The Winter’s Tale” (Marjorie Garber will clue you in, though), though only a certain class of Shakespeare’s own audience would pick up these. They would enjoy the rest, though, especially a naughty bit of business: “…Many a man there is, even at the present,/Now, while I speak this, hold his wife by th’arm,/That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence./And his pond fished by next neighbor, by /Sir Smile, his neighbor.” But for even a bit of bawdy to register for us, things need to slow down.

Other benefits: the physical shtick has time to unwind, the songs and the dance, the exits and the entrances. And once we accept the idea that Leontes truly is demented, diseased, and/or infected, it changes our take on him. Maybe we CAN forgive him, at least a little. He was operating outside his rational mind, and though lives were destroyed in the process, he wasn’t responsible. What “The Winter’s Tale” teaches is just that: we are so quick to argue against the evidence, if it doesn’t match what we want, what we believe, whatever fiction we have contrived.

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Is it fair to burden Northwest Classical Theatre with this charge? Of course not. Why them and not Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which sometimes rattles along at a breathless pace through its Shakespeare, emphasizing the dirty bits with inventive physical pratfalls maybe, but not the finer turns of language.

I was quite taken with this production and its level of commitment, energy and even cunning, especially dealing with the small spaces, that runs through the large cast, a mix of veteran Portland actors and newcomers. And I’m happier knowing that they are out there keeping “The Winter’s Tale” alive.

NOTE

In an earlier version, we gave an incorrect spelling for Christy Drogosch.

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2 Responses.

  1. Christy Drogosch says:

    With all due respect: “Drogosch” not “Drogos”. This is the second misspelling in so many days and I want to be sure it doesn’t catch on…family name and all.

    Cheers!
    c

  2. admin says:

    Oops. Sorry about that. We corrected above!

Comments are closed.