Conrad Nelson’s production of The Winter’s Tale for Northern Broadsides is the most stripped-back production I’ve seen. We saw it performed in the round at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke where the stage was bare, but for an occasional bench or something similar.
The result is to focus attention on Shakespeare’s words and symbolism – and on the quality of the acting which, as always with Northern Broadsides, was very high indeed with notable performances by Conrad Nelson himself in the role of Leontes, Ruth Alexander as Paulina, Mike Hugo as Autolycus, and Jessica Dyas and Lauryn Redding as the sparring peasant girls Mopsa and Dorcas.
Director Conrad Nelson has the play open as the assembled Sicilian court celebrate New Year’s Eve. Then, after the interval, we briefly hear the sounds of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reinforcing the sense of the passage of time before Time enters and informs us that 16 years have passed since the bear (unseen in this production) pursued Antigonus, and the shepherd discovered the lost child Perdita.
One striking characteristic of the play is how rapidly Shakespeare forces the pace in telling his story. We are little more than a hundred lines into Act 1 before Leontes’ jealousy erupts at the ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’, the practised smiles and sighs he imagines when his wife and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, are together.
Then, at the start of Act 4, Shakespeare has Time fill in what’s happened in the 16 years since Leontes caused the deaths of his wife, son and daughter, and also of his trusted adviser Antigonus. Through these years Leontes has shut himself away in grief, while his daughter has grown up as a shepherdess in Bohemia. Now a beautiful young woman, Perdita has caught the eye of Florizel, son of King Polixenes – though he knows nothing of her true identity.
For Shakespeare’s audience ‘a winter’s tale’ would suggest ‘an idle tale’ - something not too realistic, with a happy ending, to while away the dark hours of a winter night. The Winter’s Tale certainly stretches an audience’s credulity. I enjoyed Mike Poulton’s observation in his programme notes that the real location of the play is not Sicily or Bohemia, but Shakespeare’s own head: ‘an ever-expanding space, very close to infinity’.
Shakespeare’s source was a mediocre story by Robert Greene called Pandosto,
first published in 1588. Pandosto is the name of the King of Bohemia who suspects his wife of having an affair with his friend, the King of Sicilia. From such unpromising material Shakespeare fashioned his drama, adding the rich characterisation, the poetry, and the bucolic jollities of the Bohemian sheep-shearing festival.
Speaking about his approach to the production, Conrad Nelson has compared The Winter’s Tale with its source to note how Shakespeare’s instincts as a dramatist inspired him to develop an incidental character in the novel into Paulina, the play’s ‘towering, fearless figure of integrity and love’:
I wonder if those who find this play a ‘problem’ are simply looking at the wrong protagonist. Unfortunately, we still have a tendency to think that stories are all about the men. This play is more difficult to pull together as a whole if you think it’s Leontes’ story. It isn’t. Certainly, his irrational jealousy drives the narrative at the beginning, but it is the fates of his wife and daughter – two women at the mercy of the men around them and the Gods above them – that are paramount here. We don’t stay with Leontes in Sicilia, but follow Perdita to Bohemia, and ultimately return with her.
And all the while, holding everything together with wisdom and vision is the wonderful Paulina.
Nelson’s approach – and Ruth Alexander’s excellent performance – brings Paulina’s pivotal role into sharp focus. With the New Year’s Eve references Nelson also sharpens the focus on the Shakespeare’s theme of time as the revealer of truth and restorer of harmony and things thought lost. (Though in the programme notes Mike Poulton has a different slant, seeing Time as the devourer of all things, and recalling his Yorkshire childhood when people would still query the time by asking, ‘how’s the enemy?’)
Poulton also draws our attention to two aspects of the play which a modern audience will miss. One being ‘doubling’. He points out that in Shakespeare’s day, Leontes’ son Mamillius would have been played by same male actor who would return to play Perdita in the second half, making her resurrection more miraculous than it seems to us. Secondly, when the play was first presented it was common when a king or queen died for a painted wax effigy of the departed monarch to made and exhibited publicly – so a Jacobean audience would not have been surprised by the appearance of Hermione’s effigy.
Any production of The Winter’s Tale must stand or fall by its redemptive scene, and this one by Northern Broadsides is as emotive and magical as any I’ve seen – yet simply staged. When Paulina calls for music, the company quietly sings a motet to as Hermione’s figure stirs into life. It’s powerful theatre, driving home Shakespeare’s theme of reconciliation and redemption.
I was drawn powerfully to this play when I studied it for A-level as a teenager. Partly, it was the pastoralism of the Bohemian scenes which thrilled me. At that time, where I lived the suburbs were only just beginning to edge their way into open countryside. Growing up in this semi-rural setting, when Perdita makes her ‘speech of flowers’ that begins ‘I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might become your time of day’ the poetry spoke powerfully to me:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale prime-roses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phœbus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. O! these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!
The theme of theme of reconciliation and redemption moved me intensely – and still does. But, after seeing the Broadsides production we talked about Conrad Nelson’s reference to The Winter’s Tale as a ‘problem play’, and how there is a very real problem of psychology in this play. The optimistic ending cannot prevent some serious questions being asked. Not only is there the matter of from where Leonte’s jealousy springs so urgently and unexplained. There is also the question of Hermione’s response to being embraced at the end by Leontes, the man who caused the death of their lovely young son and Paulina’s husband, and who, sixteen years before, sentenced to death the woman he now embraces. She’s a woman who has endured sixteen years in hiding, during which time she has thought her daughter, too, has died.
The emotions that Hermione has experienced during her long isolation, and what she now feels are left unexplored. Over all, Shakespeare draws a veil as Leontes’ says, ‘hastily lead away.’