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  • Title: The Winter's Tale: Performance History
  • Author: Hardin Aasand
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-367-0

    Copyright Hardin Aasand. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Hardin Aasand
    Peer Reviewed

    Performance History

    The new century

    Twenty-first century performances

    The twenty-first century saw renewed interest in this play, especially in the spring of 2001. By the fall of 2001, however, the play seemed to lose its currency for nearly a decade. Carol Chillington Rutter queried its revival by 2009: "What accounts for the play's currency today? Is it, since that September, our culture's profoundly adjusted attitude to time, history and loss, the daily acknowledgement of life's fragility? Is it a longing for a return to a place we can't recover . . . ." (350). Rutter alludes to the events of 9/11 and the sense of vulnerability created by an act of terrorism. That sense of a failed nostalgia and abrupt violence marks the productions that occurred later in the first decade of the new millennium. The domestic violence and assertion of feminine prerogative, especially in Paulina's bellicosity towards Leontes, found an audience during the new millennium as especially topical and relevant. Notable productions include both the 2005 Propeller Production that featured an all-male cast who doubled parts and the respective 2009 and 2010 high-profile productions in New York by the Bridge Project and Shakespeare in the Park. The Propeller Production attempted to duplicate the all-male productions of Shakespeare's time and the subsequent doubling of parts. Thus, one actor plays Time, Mamillius, and Perdita, accentuating the temporal shifts occasioned by Mamillius's death and Perdita's birth. The play's emphasis on time was reinforced by the rear-projection of the moon ["the watery star" 1.2.1; TLN 50] that gradually became a new moon following the interval. The Bohemia of this production is headed by a band, "The Bleatles," and Autolycus is garbed as punk rocker à la Iggy Pop. Exit pursued by a bear provides the company with an opportunity to play with audience expectations: Mamillius arrives on stage dressed in a bear suit an act earlier than the actual bear, tweaking the audience's expectation. When the bear does arrive to devour Antigonus, it turns out to be Mamillius's stuffed bear. Noteworthy is the coda director Edward Hall appends to the end: the ghost of Mamillius arrives to blow out the candle cradled in Leontes's hands. The coda provides the play with a proper annunciation of a production for a new world. Increasingly, the play turns its attention to the children, Mamillius especially, and the effect of domestic violence on children.

    The Bridge Project was a bi-national production by Sam Mendes that married American and British actors to create the Sicilian and Bohemian realms. Notable in this production was Simon Russell Beale's Leontes, who is credited with making "transparent" Leontes's jealousy while sustaining the enigma of its origins. The power of the first half of the production in Sicilia cast with British actors made pedestrian the Bohemia set in rural Midwest America, a dramatic rarity for a play that necessitates the relief offered by a Bohemian idyll. Suffering in comparison is the 2010 Shakespeare in the Park production registered by actors blaring out dialogue to be heard above urban noise. The psychological layers provided by the 2009 Mendes production are missing in a production for which the Bohemian pastoral setting promise of comic festivities—heightened by puppets and Eastern European dance music—are welcome relief. The production's emotional swings are characterized as achieved more in the telling than in the showing.

    20Regional productions at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2005 and at the Guthrie Theatre in 2011 provided the play with elements inspired by regional and thematic tastes. Darko Tresnak's Old Globe production, spare of stage but resplendent with special lighting to highlight seasonal changes, gives Leontes's jealousy a complexity that captures his tragic trajectory. The restoration of Hermione is especially heightened by the presence of a female Time, who cradles Hermione in a recreation of a moving Pietà. Tresnak's production ushers in a Bohemia in which the beer barrel polka and a giant funhouse bear establish the festive mood of the regenerative kingdom.

    Jonathan Munby's 2011 Guthrie Theatre production doubles Time with Antigonus, the actor changing from his military uniform to an all white spectral garb. If the Old Globe created a carnivalesque atmosphere with a cut-out bear's head, the Guthrie production used an actor in a bear suit with special lighting to capture the ominous attack on Antigonus. The Guthrie highlighted its Midwest roots by setting its Bohemia in a northern Minnesota setting with birch trees and black-eyed susans and Ford Ranchero pick ups. Despite the staging idiosyncrasies of these two productions, both directors highlighted the tortured state of Leontes's mind and its incipient jealousy. Munby used a dumb show to capture Leontes's riven mind and pre-recorded vocal murmurings to create the internal monologue that disrupted his state. Tresnak's Leontes gains in sympathy through the moving statue scene, in which his Hermione is restored to his side. The Guthrie production emphasizes especially Hermione's anguish during her trial scene, in which she is dressed in a sackcloth dress stenciled with a number, her hair shorn and skin gaunt from the imprisonment.

    The RSC's imported production (directed by David Farr) in New York in 2011 gave Leontes's jealousy a "cool ferocity" that reveals a jealousy with an extensive germination period. The Edwardian setting provides the most unsettling of transformations; chandeliers come crashing down and ceiling-high bookcases collapse, strewing their books with a cataclysmic thunder. The loose pages are given extra sartorial power by forming the costumes of the Bohemians and the leaves of the trees. Though the production also creates a haunting image of the final restoration of Leontes and Hermione, Farr leaves Autolycus onstage to challenge the audience's acceptance of the play's promise of a festive reunion. He shrugs to reinforce the ambiguity of the resolution. Does the play conclude "happily ever after?" Perhaps not.


    The 1981 BBC production of the play is renowned for the influence of producer Jonathan Miller and director Jane Howell in establishing a play that avoided the "realism" of earlier productions in the BBC series. Described as an "economically" adaptive approach to the play for a televised media, Howell's production has a stylized quality more akin to the more experimental theatrical productions (Hall, 178-79). The set was a stark wedge-shaped background with a central entrance, two cones and a tree to suggest a nondescript landscape given seasonal change through lighting. Jeremy Kemp is a stern, domineering Leontes to Robert Stephens's more cheery Polixenes. Anna Calder-Marshall and Margaret Tyzack project, respectively, Hermione's resilience and Paulina's indignant outrage to Leontes's affronts.

    The production is also notable for its striking use of television's intimacy to isolate Kemp's whispered asides to the audience from the onstage action and to unite audience and Autolycus in conspiratorial collusion during his dissembling feats. Grouping of actors in the televised frame allowed Howell to control the audience's interpretation and perspective. In Leontes's interruption of Hermione's intimate moments with Mamillius in Act 2, Howell uses the camera to shift angles from Hermione and her court dressed in light colors on the left and Leontes with his courtiers dressed in black, pulling back to reveal the growing rift within Sicilia's order. A similar effect is used to isolate Hermione during her trial scene as the camera moves from her isolated close-up to take in the sweep of the court's remoteness from her plight. The Bohemian sheep-shearing scenes are similarly staged, with the swelling of the scene from individual to group scenes to capture the festivities as a communal mingling of Perdita, Florizel, and the Bohemian celebrants. As Joan Hall observes, the effectiveness of the fluid medium of television fails to deliver the impact of the final statue scene; the close-ups of Hermione's awakening and Leontes's astonishment deprive the audience of the advantage of the wider perspective as Hermione's return is registered by all the characters onstage.

    25The theatrical and cinematic productions described have captured the range of interpretations and staging possibilities presented by Shakespeare's play, a drama that draws attention to its artifice and to the emotional polarities that life presents to all of us. If productions come to different conclusions about the source of Leontes's jealousy, the depth of his depravity or fragile condition, the nature of the bear which sheds blood in the creation of the Bohemian pastoral, and the pathos of the haunting closing scene, all theatrical versions exploit the aesthetic demands of this play. The Winter's Talerequires its readers and its spectators to experience joy and terror as the inexorable consequences of Time's hourglass as it turns again and again to demarcate this "wide gap" of life.