RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.

3 Responses to “RSC: The Winter’s Tale”

  1. erikleo Says:

    I too enjoyed the recent tv Winter’s Tale. Jealousy could be said to be what starts the ball rolling in the play. It is a play written in the last years of his life when he seems to have veered away from tragedy and focussed on spiritual renewal. It is a play about moral choices, contrition and redemption. I’d recoomend a remarkable book dealing with these themes; its titled, The Shakespearean Ethic by John Vyvyan. In a chapter on the Winter’s Tale he suggests Act 4 is a sort of inner dream world where Leontes is Florizel and the spiritual wound of his (Leontes) wrongdoing is healed via the love for Perdita. A remarkable view which I’ve not had time to re-examine by going back to the text. The book analyses the tragedies as well in this light. If you are interested in philosophy, ehtics, morality and spirituality this is a book not to be missed. Oh, I forgot to say, any lover of Shakespeare too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      Thank you for that; I shall certainly look up the Vyvyan book, which I’d not heard of before. Shakespeare was definitely looking at different things and looking at life in new ways in those final few plays. Apart from The Tempest they’re rarely set for school study, perhaps because they are so experimental and don’t lend themselves to easy labelling like tragedies. I was never comfortable with the idea of ‘romance’. And it’s hard to think oneself into what he was trying to say by having those lengthy, magical (and to us irrelevant, perhaps) interludes.

      I’d like to see the performance again, to watch more closely the interpretation of Paulina, which took a while to shape up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. erikleo Says:

    There are performances on YouTube including one with Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench; and there’s Jonathon Miller’s BBC film. In fact that latter might be worth watching as he liked dream-type sequences!

    Liked by 1 person

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