Stefania Ciocia looks at The Winter’s Tale

Stefania Ciocia salutes the strong women in Blanche McIntyre’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Globe.

One of Shakespeare’s late plays, The Winter’s Tale begins where Othello ends, with “the green-ey’d monster” rearing its ugly head to spark a chain of dramatic events that here span sixteen years; the devastating consequences of jealousy ripple through to and beyond final reunions and reconciliations, whose flavour remains bittersweet. We are in tragicomic romance territory. The difficulty of resolving the Janus-faced contrasts inherent in the genre is why some scholars consider this text a problem play, on a par with the earlier Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well.

Unlike Othello (and Much Ado About Nothing), jealousy in The Winter’s Tale is completely self-induced: there is no trickery or foul play to provoke and then feed the suspicions of Leontes, King of Sicilia who, before his first scene is over, gets it into his head that his wife Hermione is carrying the child of Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Perversely, Leontes begins to doubt the queen because of her success in accomplishing what he himself has failed to do: convince his dear childhood friend Polixenes to postpone his imminent departure from Sicilia by one week. The duration of Polixenes’ nine-month-long visit, set against Hermione’s advanced pregnancy, is the other lame circumstantial ‘evidence’ that Leontes latches on to as his speculations spiral out of control.

Out of the blue, then, Leontes destroys a happy marriage to the mother of his young son Mamillius, whose innocent features are put under close scrutiny for signs of illegitimacy, and a brotherly bond rooted in life-long knowledge and affection; as Polixenes reminisces to Hermione of Leontes and himself as children, “We were as twinned as lambs that did frisk i’th’sun, / And bleat the one at th’other”. The wreckage of familial, loving attachments is hard stuff to watch at the best of times, but watching I am, my heart in my mouth because on this late summer day, The Winter’s Tale had better deliver. This time it’s personal, for one special reason.

Exactly a week after seeing Othello, I am back at the Globe, as a groundling, leaning on the stage just behind Helen, my lovely thirteen-year-old niece. It’s her first visit to the Globe, and I am over the moon to be sharing this occasion with her. However, ten minutes into the play, notwithstanding the fact that I know that she knows what she’s letting herself in for (we have been through the plot, minus very final revelation, together), I fear I might be a contender for the title of Worst Aunt on the Planet for exposing her to such cruel material. In my defence, I have her parents’ permission. I should also take comfort from having gleaned that she is acquainted with other Shakespearean plays.

That, in itself, is not really a surprise. I can well imagine that children in this country get an early dose of the Bard. What knocks me out is Helen’s entirely modest revelation, en passant, that she played Lady Macbeth in a school production of the Scottish play a couple of years ago. I’m impressed – and a bit in shock, if truth be told – but this piece of information does nothing to stop me from seeking reassurance of my fitness as a responsible adult, and so I keep on casting surreptitious, nervous looks at the father (I’m guessing) who with his two young boys (both younger than Helen, for sure) has managed to bag the prime groundling spot front and centre of the stage.[1] They’re doing fine, it seems. Still…

Lust for power, ruthless ambition, cryptic prophecies and witches’ songs is one thing. At one remove and then some from everyday reality, no? But a mistrustful, abusive husband – and an interfering, despotic father, later in the play – are grounded in the domestic sphere and thus closer to a more universal experience. This is true even in the Never-Never-Lands of Sicilia and Bohemia, where Leontes’ and Polixenes’ royal status functions as a marker of social privilege and patriarchal authority primarily in an intimate, rather than political, domain. We see these kings lord it over their women and children, instead of ruling their countries. From where I am standing, I’m getting a clear-eyed view of the family as the hierarchical, tyrannical institution that it can be. Can Helen see this too? I don’t want to ask.

Destructive jealousy is not the only link between Othello and The Winter’s Tale: they both feature characters named Emilia, which is why they are being staged this season, Michelle Terry’s inaugural as Artistic Director at the Globe. The idea is to pay an overdue homage to Emilia Bassano, “extraordinary poet, mother and early modern feminist”, and now the inspiration for an especially commissioned eponymous new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm.[2] The feminist agenda and sensitivity of this season imbue this production of The Winter’s Tale too, starting from its unwillingness to rationalise Leontes’ behaviour.

In the programme, director Blanche McIntyre talks about why it can’t be explained: “The key thing is that there is no reason that would justify [his jealousy]. There’s no legitimate cause for it. It seems very important that we do not do the classic thing of a flirty moment between Polixenes and Hermione, partly because that suggests that she brings it on herself”. McIntyre is adamant about quashing any suggestion that Hermione, or Polixenes for that matter, are implicated in Leontes’ “breakdown”. Notice how this choice of words turns his condition into a pathology. The solution to the absence of motivation is to present Leontes as stricken by a disease, which has the double advantage of accounting for his severely impaired judgement and therefore of preserving, in theory at least, the small reservoir of sympathy that the audience will have to draw on for this character if they are to embrace the play’s ending as a happy one.

Will Keen throws himself body and soul into corroborating this opening gambit: his increasingly febrile Leontes shakes almost to excess, his veins throbbing and bulging, his rage so loud and apoplectic as to get me worried about his blood pressure. Meanwhile, Leontes’ right-hand-man Camillo (Adrian Bower) fails to get his king to see sense and is entrusted to poison Polixenes (Oliver Ryan), but decides to warn the intended victim and take off with him to the safer shores of Bohemia. This betrayal strengthens Leontes’ paranoid suspicions: Hermione (Priyanga Burford) is separated from Mamillius (Rose Wardlaw), and sent to jail, where she gives birth to a baby girl and must wait for word from the oracle at Delphi to exculpate her.

In a crescendo of harrowing events, Paulina (Sirine Saba) tries to move Leontes to compassion by showing him his daughter. In response, the king nearly stamps on the newborn, summons Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Howard Ward), and orders him to dispose of the little one by leaving her to her fate in “some remote and desert place, quite out / Of our dominions”. This turns out to be Antigonus’ death sentence, and not the child’s: the infant Perdita, as the solicitous man calls her, is abandoned in Bohemia with gold and proof of her ancestry, soon to be rescued by two shepherds who will bring her up as one of their own. Antigonus is not so lucky; having completed his mission for the King (and the story’s plot), he is dispatched by Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.

Over in Sicilia, the response of the oracle of Apollo is crystal-clear: “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”. When Leontes persists in believing Hermione guilty, news arrives of Mamillius’ death. Leontes takes this as a sign of Apollo’s ire, the queen collapses and is later reported to have died too. It’s a lot to take in, for her and for the audience. During the interval, I have to remind myself – not so much Helen, who is taking it all in her stride – that things will pick up in the second half, though the appearance of a giant animal skull on the stage seems to suggest otherwise. Thankfully, this memento mori is an ephemeral prop for Time (the versatile Rose Wardlow again) whose opening speech in Act IV puts us back in the picture.

Sixteen years have passed and we are in Bohemia, where Perdita (Norah Lopez-Holden) and Florizel (Luke MacGregor) have fallen in love. This state of affairs is not as straightforward as it looks: Florizel is posing as a shepherd when in fact he is none other than Polixenes’ son. Trouble on the horizon then: although this is the more light-hearted part of the story, The Winter’s Tale is an equal opportunities text when it comes to its powerful men behaving badly.

It is now Polixenes’ turn to throw his weight about, and reveal his controlling side in his hostility to Perdita as an unsuitable match for his son and heir. (Polixenes suspects Perdita of avarice, but we are aware that she is in the dark about Florizel’s real identity, as well as her own.) Once more, Camillo providentially intervenes and suggests that the two young lovers should seek asylum in Sicilia; the penitent Leontes might be able to intercede with Polixenes on their behalf.

There are all kinds of interesting symmetries in this play. Two shouting kings. Check. Two innocent women were wrongly abused. Check. Sicilia and Bohemia as paradises suddenly change into hostile environments. Check. Against this gloomy background, what stands out in McIntryre’s production is the presence of strong female characters, each remarkable in her different way, each resourceful and resilient in the face of the unexpected.

Hermione knows her worth from the start – she had me at “A lady’s ‘verily’ is / As potent as a lord’s” – and is unwavering in retaining her dignity under extreme duress. Perdita is fresh and charming as befits her youth, but she also has her feet planted solidly on the ground. She understands better than Florizel that their union is likely to be opposed; she can smell something fishy in her beau’s determination not to disclose their engagement to his father. Even the old shepherd who has adopted Perdita is a shepherdess (Anne Badland), whose parental skills shine in her supportive approbation of the young lovers’ blossoming romance.

With much to admire in all these female characters, I am spoilt for choice, but I do have a favourite, courtesy of the moment that nearly has me whoop in feminist solidarity: Paulina’s righteous anger in Act II, let loose as she pleads Hermione’s case with Leontes (“Good queen, my lord, good queen, I say good queen; / And would by combat make her good, so were I / A man, the worst about you”). Sirine Saba gives an impassioned, no-holds-barred performance, beating her chest, claiming her space on stage, willing Leontes to listen to her and take her seriously.

There is something radical in these unbounded expressions of physicality. Think about it: the one thing that a ‘middle-aged’ woman – or any woman at that – is not allowed to be in public is angry. Ask Serena Williams. Where men are perceived as assertive, women are often seen as aggressive. Well, think again: Paulina owns her outrage, and the stage, with electrifying self-possession. She is a force of nature to be reckoned with, a sight to behold.[3] Leontes really must be mad to remain unmoved. Of course, Paulina is vindicated in the end, though she must bide her time. [Spoiler alert: please skip the next paragraph if you had rather not know the play’s resolution.]

Where were we? Perdita and Florizel do find refuge in Sicilia, where a broken Leontes takes them under his wing. The king’s fledgling affinity for Perdita is beautifully evoked by Will Keen, much subtler here than in his heart-attack-inducing, alpha-male fury in Act I. It is only a matter of time, once the rest of the Bohemian contingent variously make their way to Sicilia, before Perdita’s parentage is disclosed and harmony restored. The anagnorisis and reconciliation, however, all happen off stage, since Shakespeare packs a punch in his final surprise when Hermione – appearing in the guise of a statue – is conjured back to life by Paulina. Saba steals the whole show all over again at this point, with her utter control of the situation and careful orchestrating of the slow reveal.

In the season of Emilia, The Winter’s Tale finds in Paulina its feminist heroine amongst other compelling female figures.[4] The characterization of Bohemia is another solid choice in this production, in which pastoral shenanigans and sheep-shearing larks are replaced by an atmosphere of small-scale village fête, or homespun music festival, young people with glitter on their faces, flowers in their hair, drinking cider and dancing around to happy tunes. These guileless carry-ons take me back thirty years, to endless summers when my friends and I would hold makeshift parties at a moment’s notice. I am enchanted by this vintage take on Bohemia, and have a particularly soft spot for Jordan Metcalfe’s wonderfully comic turn as Clown.

The one bum note of this Tale is the simultaneously underwhelming and overengineered exit-pursued-by-a-bear, consisting of an unfolding banner of the animal, two spiky contrivances (the paws?) and a thin frame falling mousetrap-like onto the stage to signal Antigonus’ demise. Autolycus’ (Becci Gemmell) modernised appearance as a backpacking rogue – and one-time peddler of sunglasses and other festival must-haves – works better, though it’s always a tall ask to get some of Shakespeare’s humour to travel. I also wish for Paulina to be spared the obligatory pairing off at the end, but I guess we’ve got Shakespeare to blame for that. Camillo is one lucky man and, in fairness, deserves to be her husband.

In spite of my impatience with the neat tying up of unwarranted marital knots, the finale is genuinely moving, the feeling of catharsis enhanced by the uplifting gig with which every Globe performance traditionally concludes. My head is less easily satisfied than my heart, though. They don’t call this a problem play for anything. In granting Leontes forgiveness so readily, perhaps this production – closely wedded to notions of the inexplicable, of the portent, of the magical – smooths over the tragic cracks of the story: Mamillius’ death, Perdita’s and Hermione’s losses, the intolerable waste of sixteen years.

If Leontes is not to blame for that, there’s not much of a journey for him to go on. The same applies to his friend Polixenes, whose worries about Perdita’s pedigree are assuaged not by her worth, but by her lineage. Just like in fairy tales, characters turn out to be who they were supposed to be all along. Does this mean that the price for a happy ending is a short memory and a degree of conservativism? Do we forgive and forget because jealousy – like a contagion – is beyond the king’s control? Maybe, but the whole Leontes-played-as-if-seized-by-madness ploy didn’t wash with Helen. At the end of the performance, she was still really angry with him. Good for you, girl.

The Winter’s Tale is on at the Globe until 14 October.

Dr Stefania Ciocia is a Reader of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. You can find her on Twitter as Gained in Translation @StefaniaCiocia.

[1] For the record, Helen and I are to the left of the stage instead, conveniently next to the steps leading directly to and from the pit. She’ll get to high-five one of the actors, mid-performance. My own involvement in the action is less dignified since at one point I am made to jump out of my skin by Howard Ward’s treacherous thundering of his lines suddenly behind my back. The whole theatre is laughing, while he doesn’t miss a beat: “I’m sorry, Madam. Didn’t mean to scare you. Are you alright?”. Cheeky.

[2] Variations on this description of Emilia Bassano are in Michelle Terry’s introduction to the programmes for Othello, The Winter’s Tale and Emilia. In its short run, Emilia has enjoyed good reviews and, more importantly, a rapturous reception from its audience: the night I saw it, the atmosphere between stage and pit was as close to spontaneous call-and-response dynamics as I have ever witnessed in a theatre, the shared energy undampened by two hours of heavy rain drenching us groundlings and, at times, several of the actors too.

[3] This is where I had my Guilty Feminist moment: I’m a feminist but, during Paulina’s show-stopping exchange with Leontes, I thought several times “What’s her fitness routine? How did she get those Michelle Obama upper arms?”.

[4] Blink and you miss the Emilia in The Winter’s Tale. She is played by Zora Bishop who doubles up as Cleomenes and Mopsa in a cast notable for their strong performances.