July 5, 2001 performance, reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
The Winter’s Tale has always been my favorite of the four late romances that round out Shakespeare’s career – plays in which the father/daughter and lost/found themes are so poignantly expressed. Unfortunately, the strange and uneven production that has opened at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, despite some strong performances, blurs and distorts the play’s beauty, making the seemingly miraculous reunions in Act V less than they deserve to be.
Although the final scene groped for closure, it could not recapture a mood and theme that Shakespeare has introduced in the opening scene: that of lamb-white innocence and necessary growth. The melodramatic acting of the first half of the play, followed by wild farce in the second half, prevent seemingly simple lines from ringing with the resonance they deserve – lines such as: “It is required you do awake your faith,” and “Dear life redeems you.”
The plot of the play is a simple one, though it spans a generation, and the two very different halves of it are linked by Time, a literal character which is evoked by the circling clock and moon of the setting – elaborate, variously and ingeniously lit, and often effective.
Leontes, King of Sicilia, suddenly “drinks the spider” and sees unreasoned and unmotivated jealousy at the bottom of his cup. He accuses his guest and longtime best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, of being his wife’s lover and father of her unborn child. Polixenes, warned by Silician lord Camillo that Leontes seeks his death, flees to his own kingdom. The faithful wife Hermione is banished to a prison in which she bears an infant daughter. Paulina, a lady of the court, brings the child to Leontes, who orders it to be taken and abandoned on a distant shore and for his wife to stand trial before him.
Meanwhile, he sends to Delphi for an oracle, which is delivered in court at the climax of the play’s first half. The oracle’s voice of truth is: “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.”
Leontes accepts the truth too late. His wife, who swoons and is carried out of her trial, is reported dead. So is his young son Mamillius, whose simple lines from an opening scene, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” ring hollowly. And the abandoned baby is beyond recall.
That these awful events can end in forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy, is a part of Shakespeare’s mature genius shown in this play. It was long considered unstagable and is now thought to be one of his masterpieces, requiring subtle staging and acting.
The second half of the play opens in Bohemia where the abandoned baby is found and raised to radiant girlhood by an old shepherd and his son. She is wooed and won by Florizel, son of Polioxenes. It is in this second part, at a joyous sheep-sheering party, that some of the most beautiful language of the play occur, and where Shakespeare’s themes are made clear in Perdita’s (the lost one literally) language of the flowers.
Much must yet occur in the plot before the young lovers, of course temporarily star-crossed by past events, can arrive and all can reach the safe haven of Sicilia where the final recognitions and reconciliations may take place. It is in this ending that Shakespeare shows his greatest skill as dramatist.
Though the father/daughter theme is a strong one, the wife/husband one overshadows it. Wisely he knows that both played onstage could diminish his climactic ending.
Perdita and Leones scene of recognition occurs off stage between scenes, told to us by others, not because Shakespeare could not write it differently but because he knew this way was better, leaving the stage clear for the final unfolding miracle of an ending.
This is a folk tale, full of good and evil, punishment and redemption. To love it, one must be willing to heed Coleridge and “suspend our disbelief.”
In this flawed production that leans too heavily on melodrama and farce, there are a number of strong and outstanding performances. Kate Burton (Hermione) creates an air of purity, a stillness about her always. She speaks her lines with beautiful calm dignity, capturing the poetry. Always central when on stage, she moves with grace, commanding our attention.
As Perdita, the lost one, Laura Benanti is excellently cast. She bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother when the two are reunited and plays appealingly in love scenes with Florizel (Joel de la Fuente). Her lines about the significance of flowers are a highlight of the sheep-sheering festival, delivered with simplicity, gaity, and poetry.
Her young lover, de la Fuente, is best in a marvelous speech in which he lists Perdita’s charms by comparing motion to stillness.
As lady friend to Hermione, Paulina (Kristine Nielson) manages in the chaos of the first act melodrama to stand firm and unmelodramatic. She adds fierce human dignity to the scenes in which she helps control events and through her strong and self-denying character plucks peace from adversity. That her personal loss, the husband Antigonus (Tom Bloom in a small but well played role) is unable to be rectified is one of the ironies for which there could be no balm. Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by bear.” could not be erased.
Dylan Baker as Camillo, the Sicilian lord who escapes to Bohemia with Polixenes, is stronger when not pushed into farce and he delivers his lines effectively.
Stephen DeRosa as the pickpocket rogue Autolycus delights the audience with his songs and antics. And the bevy of youngsters at the sheep-sheering dance with zest and brio.
The old shepherd (Bill Smitrovich) handles his short role well, making his character a believable one. The child Mamillius, (Torrey Brenner) is poignant in his first act scenes. However, his appearance at the play’s end, added a director’s touch that one doubts Shakespeare intended and which detracted, rather than enhanced, the total effect.
The Winter’s Tale is a delicately crafted play that depends on subtle handling At times this production touches it, at others obscures it. While the settings, costumes and lighting are extravagant and colorful, at times they distract and call attention to themselves rather than to the play they are meant to support.
The audience seemed pleased with the production and other reviewers may laud it. Perhaps some of the opening night’s excesses of melodrama and farce will be smoothed out. It is a beautiful play and one of the rewards of the evening was to see that Kate Burton can handle Shakespeare as well as she handles Ibsen. She never lets us down in Willimstown.