We went to see The Winter’s Tale last night, which is most appropriate because a) it’s winter in Sydney and b) it’s also winter-y in Sydney, with chilling cold and sheeting rain, and even though sunset is about 530pm it’s dark by 430 because of the weather. This production was put on by Shakespeare On the Green, a small local company whose performances we have enjoyed for the last few years, having seen them also present The Comedy of Errors & A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Both of those were performed outdoors, so it was quite foresighted of them to change their MO and use a hall instead this year. Not being a Shakespearean scholar of any note, merely a bloke who knows lots of trivial information, I would guess that The Winter’s Tale is one of the Bard’s lesser known plays. It’s certainly a story that held my interest throughout, as it varied from Othello-esque palace drama in the first act to rude pastoral comedy for most of the second.
The Winter’s Tale centres on Leontes, king of Sicilia, who is wracked with suspicion that his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione, his queen (who is heavily pregnant with their second child – although Leontes believes that Polixenes may be the father). Throughout the first act, he falls from noble hearted monarch to base paranoid villain, instructing his courtiers to do murder, imprisoning the queen and eventually ordering the newborn princess to be abandoned in the wild. The first act closes with Leontes ridden down by despair – his wife & his heir dead, his best friend estranged, his court distrusting or dispersed, and his daughter lost. He comes to terms with the fact that all his suspicions were for naught, Hermione being proved loyal posthumously, and must now deal with the guilt and loss his behaviour has wrought.
The second act opens sixteen years later. Leontes’ lost daughter Perdita was rescued as an infant by a Bohemian peasant family, who found her (complete with the obligatory tokens of royal provenance) after the courtier entrusted with her disposal was et by a bear. All who know her remark on her grace, her beauty & elegance; her foster family believe her to be a fairy changeling. In one of those typically awkward Shakespearean plot twists, she has fallen in love with the prince of Bohemia, Florizel – the son and heir of Leontes’ former friend Polixenes – and he with her. Whilst she knows his true nature, her family believe him to be merely a wealthy landowner and welcome him as a commoner into their home for feasts and parties. Polixenes grows concerened at his son’s increasingly frequent absences from court, and he resolves to discover what’s afoot by disgusing himself and his advisor Camillo as simple folk. They find themselves observing the peasant family partying down, celebrating the betrothal of Florizel & Perdita. Polixenes reveals himself and orders Florizel to abandon Perdita, threatening to have the peasant family killed for reaching above their station. However, true love runs true, and the youngsters resolve to flee Bohemia. They are abetted by Camillo, who longs to return to his native Sicilia (he fled there when he helped Polixenes escape Leontes paranoid murder plot). Camillo instructs the kids to sail for Sicilia and present themselves as married and representatives of Polixenes, claiming he wishes to re-establish relations with Leontes.
On their arrival they are warmly welcomed by the repentant, but still guilt-stricken, Leontes; however, they are soon undone by the arrival of Polixenes and Camillo who reveal that Florizel fled from court and Perdita is a commoner. Luckily, Polixenes’s wrath is soon stayed by the revelation (by the peasant family) that Perdita was a foundling; an investigation of those fortunately found tokens establishes the truth, and everyone is reconciled. Further joy ensues when the noblewoman Paulina displays a statue of Hermione that is so warm & lifelike it amazes the gathered royalty; of course that’s because it’s the actual Hermione, whose death was faked all those years ago against just such a happy day as this…. and they all live happily ever after.
Shakespeare On The Green put on small, intimate performances – if there were two dozen in the audience last night I would be surprised. They costume appropriately (although neither completely in period or modern, everybody’s place in the world is easily identifiable by their garb – good job, well done by costumier Kate Shanahan), and prop sparingly but effectively. This leaves the focus on the craft of the actors, and some fine craft indeed was on display here. The standout for me was Tristan McKinnon as Leontes, who conveyed all the nuances of a king who believes he’s been betrayed, only to finally discover he betrayed himself, with marvellous credibility. It didn’t hurt that he looked a little like Viggo Mortenson and sounded a little like David Wenham, either. At times I loathed Leontes, at other times I pitied him, and if you can evince that kind of investment from the audience you’ve done the job. Cat Martin in her dual roles as Hermione and the peasant matriarch was competent and then some, exuding noble benifence & aggrieved innocence as the first, and homespun gravity as the second. Nobody in the rest of the cast – Brendon Taylor, Emma Harris, Chris Lewis, Alistair Buchanan & Elisabeth Tuilekutu – let the team down either; if there were any fluffed lines or missed cues I didn’t pick up on them. Everyone enunciated, everyone projected – and these are things that can make a small theatre delightful or discouraging. Special mention to the very versatile Andrew Chessher who not only attended to special effects, he also played in- and out-of-scene music and even managed to stroll on stage in a couple of roles. As usual, everyone in the company played more than one role, and the directorial staff of Sher Guhl & Victor Kalka have obviously drilled their performers on the importance of distinction between characters.
So, all in all, this was a most satisfactory and enjoyable introduction to The Winter’s Tale for me, all the more so because there was free mulled wine on offer. I’ll be back for more Shakespeare On the Green next season, and if you get the chance, then you should get along to a production as well.