The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's oddest plays. Written towards the end of his career - most experts put it around 1610 - it is not easily characterised, weaving elements of tragedy, comedy and romance. It's all a bit mashed up. As many of Shakespeare's plays were, this is based upon a popular earlier text - in this case Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. The play's title, The Winter's Tale, refers not to a seasonal setting, but to the fact that in the colder months people used to amuse themselves through telling long and fanciful tales. This is indeed a fanciful story.
The setting is Sicily, where King Leontes is entertaining his old boyhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. The two have been partying hard for months, and Polixenes reluctantly decides it is time to head back to resume his regal responsibilities. Leontes wants more of his friend's company, however, and tasks his pregnant queen, Hermione, with getting him to change his mind. After three attempts, using all her considerable charms, she finally manages this. Her flirtatious entreaties to persuade the Bohemian king to stay, however, convince her husband, Leontes, that they have been having an affair - and that the child she is carrying is illegitimate.
The Sicilian King is driven mad by these suspicions, and plots to murder Polixenes, who escapes back to Bohemia. Poor Queen Hermione meanwhile is put on trial for adultery and high treason. The Queen's troubles escalate as her new baby girl is sent to be exiled and abandoned. Meanwhile a mission is sent to the oracle at Delfos to seek a decree on Hermione's guilt or innocence. As the trial is in full flow, the message comes back. The oracle finds that she and Polixenes are innocent; and decrees that Leontes will not have an heir until his abandoned daughter is found. Leontes stubbornly ignores this judgement, and pursues with the prosecution of his wife. The oracle's prophesy is tragically realised when the royal couple's young son, Prince Mamillius dies due to the stresses of his mother's trial. Overcome with grief, Hermione collapses and is delivered away by her friend Pauline - who later announces her death.
All fairly grim thus far.
As this has been going on, the baby girl at the centre of the scandal has been transported to Bohemia by Paulina's husband, Antigonus. He leaves the child, with a bag of gold, and accoutrements of her royal birth. A bear then discovers Antigonus, and chases and kills him (Shakespeare's original directions: "Exit, pursued by a bear.") The baby remains unscathed however; and she is discovered by a shepherdess, who adopts her and calls her Perdita.
Sixteen years pass, and Perdita is a beautuful maiden. By chance she has met Florizel, who happens to be the son of Bohemian King Polixenes. The couple fall in love, and plan to marry at the annual sheep shearing fair. The King gets wind of this, and along with his courtier Camillo, he goes disguised to the fair. The rural wedding takes place, and Polixenes angrily reveals himself. However, with the help of the slippery rogue Autolycus, the couple manage to flee to Sicliy. The shepherd and his son follow on.
There, the fugitive couple approach old King Leontes, claiming to be on a diplomatic mission. However, with the arrival of Polixenes and Camillo, their cover is blown. Things look bad for the young lovers, until the shepherd begins to relate the tale of how he found the baby. Perdita's royal lineage is affirmed, and reconciliation and celebration follow.
The reunited group then visit Paulina's house to view a new statue of the late, wronged, Queen Hermione. Leontes is moved by the life like statue, noting how it looks older than how he remembered her. Unexpectedly, the statue comes to life, and the revitalised Queen is reconciled with her husband. All's well that ends well.
Bringing such an unlikely plot to life was the daunting job of the young, talented, Bridge Theatre Training Company. Under the highly creative direction of Mark Akrill, the cast produced an energetic, indeed effusive, performance, with lots of music and dirty dancing. This was a decidedly hot Winter's Tale, with the contrast between nominal season and steamy plot marked by Hawaiian shirts and tropical garlands.
I loved some things about this show. One was the wending of a video camera through the cast to the changing rooms, where act four of the play began. Clever and effective. Overall, however, it was the acting that impressed. The performance I saw was actually the cast's first dress rehearsal, but the show was performed with great confidence and flair - it was like they had been playing this for weeks. All members of the large cast were good, but four performances in particular caught my eye. Sean Scannell's freestyle portrayal of the roguish, duplicitous Autolycus was a delight - with sly eye contact and mischief making with the audience. Perfectly pitched. Louise Goodfield was also excellent as Hermione, from her flirtatious opening scenes to her desperate downfall. Giulia D'Amanzo was engaging and entertaining as the Shepherd. The standout performance for me, however, was that of Paulina. Jessica Brien played this part with great conviction and dignity, adding a disciplined passion to the unraveling events. As I walked out, I heard another member of the audience saying, "Paulina was very good". Very good indeed. Indeed, it all was.
On the whole, then, this was a confident, highly creative interpretation of one of Shakespeare's odder - most ill-fitting - plays. This week's series of shows at the Cockpit is great advertisement for the The Bridge Theatre Training Company, and I look forward to seeing their future productions. Congratulations to all involved.
Hey, I managed to get through the whole review without mentioning Hermione's parallels with Anne Boleyn, or the passage about "dildos". I said this was an odd, mixed up play.