Yesterday morning the only things I knew about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale was that it was the play that contained the ambiguous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear," and that its ending--SPOILER ALERT!--featured a statue coming to life. So in advance of our visit to Bard on the Beach to take in a matinee performance of the play, I duly read Andrew Dickson's Rough Guide summary of the plot and notable major productions (as is to be expected, it is not revived as often as Shakespeare's more popular plays); I also quickly skimmed the acts in the pages of my Norton anthology. Note to last-minute Bard crammers: Dickson's more populist contextualizing of Shakespeare's plays is frankly far more astute (and readable) than the chain-yanking academese of the Norton's header notes.
As with the fellow late romance Pericles, which was produced at Bard last season, The Winter's Tale is a tonally and spatially fractured play involving a tyrannically jealous king, a dead queen, an abandoned child, a storm at sea, roguish cutpurses, and a happy ending magically reuniting a father and his daughter. However, unlike Lois Anderson's production of the former--which radically cut and rearranged the text, and which everyone but me seemed to adore--Dean Paul Gibson, in his take on the latter, wisely hues to Shakespeare's original design. Not that I'm a purist when it comes to such matters; I just think that in this case, unlike with Pericles last year, Gibson's directorial vision actually helps to bring out more clearly the sexual politics of The Winter's Tale, exposing the deep-seated misogyny at the heart of King Leontes' jealousy and, courtesy of lady-in-waiting Paulina's mysterious machinations, turning the play in a feminist allegory on the pitfalls of patriarchal power.
When the play opens we are in Sicily, at the court of Leontes (Kevin MacDonald). Having had no luck persuading his bosom friend from childhood, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Ian Butcher), to stay another week visiting the family, Leontes entreats his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (a regal Sereana Malani), to try her luck. But her success actually piques Leontes' jealousy and after espying them enjoying what he thinks is too much intimacy during a court dance, the king convinces himself that his wife and best friend are having an affair and that his unborn child is not his own. Sounds like Othello 2.0, right? But whereas Shakespeare's earlier play about the "green-eyed monster" had the villainous Iago to poison the marital chalice, everyone else in The Winter's Tale has no idea what Leontes is on about. So when he instructs his faithful servant Camillo (Laara Sadiq) to kill Polixenes, she instead absconds with him back to Bohemia. Similarly, Rogero (Ashley O'Connell) and Antigonus (Andrew Wheeler) try to reason with Leontes, at least persuading him to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in advance of Hermione's trial for adultery and treason. But when Antigonus's wife Paulina (Jennifer Lines, taking over the role from Lois Anderson as of the middle of this month) brings Leontes his newborn daughter, thinking her sight and the consequent registering of his likeness will soften his heart, the king explodes in fury at Paulina's impudence, instructing Antigonus to take the child far away and leave her to fend for herself in the wilds. Even when the words of Apollo are read out from the oracle, pronouncing Hermione blameless and warning that if Leontes persists in his mad belief of her infidelity he will be left without an heir, the king refuses to swallow his wounded male pride; instead he rips up the oracle and orders Hermione executed. Whereupon, thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening, the king's son and sole remaining heir, Mamillius (Parmiss Sehat), is struck dead. And then his mother, the queen. This latter news is delivered by Paulina to a finally chastened Leontes in full righteous fury, berating him for not listening to her or believing his wife. In this scene, and in the earlier one in which she entreats the king to acknowledge his daughter as his own, Paulina emerges as the moral conscience of the play, daring to stand up to Leontes' and call out his wilfully blind narcissism where all others only cower and meekly do his bidding. In these scenes Lines is in full-throated physical command of not just the men on stage, but of the entire audience. You cannot take your eyes off of her as she swirls around a prostrate and weeping MacDonald, her gowns flowing around her like a sorceress. Except that, as she had earlier told Leontes, and what she will remind everyone of at the end of the play, what she sees (and eventually does) must not be called witchcraft or, in the current Trumpian lexicon, fake news; instead, we along with Leontes must call it what it is--speaking truth to power.
It's after this climactic scene in Sicily that the play abruptly shifts tone and location. We next encounter Antigonus abandoning the babe Perdita in the woods of Bohemia, but not before fending off the aforementioned bear, which is here wonderfully realized by puppet designers Heidi Wilkinson and Frances Henry as a limber-limbed War Horse-like mechanical being operated underneath by a partially visible human player (later some adorable braying sheep will also make an appearance). Threat duly taken care of, cue the shift to a more appropriately pastoral setting as the requisite shepherd and his son (a perfectly in sync David M. Adams and Chris Cochrane) discover the "wee bairn" and decide to raise her as part of their family. Sixteen years then pass, a fact which is duly announced to us in the play by the allegorical figure of Time, and in Gibson's hands here cleverly collapsed into the figure of the all-seeing and all-knowing Paulina. The remainder of the play concerns the working out of the improbable romance between the now grown shepherd's daughter Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) and Polixenes' son, Florizel (Austin Eckert). Polixenes is of course against his son marrying beneath him, but owing to Camillo once again failing to do her master's bidding, the young couple hightails it to Sicily. Shakespeare leavens the rather creaky mechanics of the play's resolution (and distracts us, it has to be said, from the insipidness of the young lovers) by introducing the cutpurse Autolycus (a superb Ben Elliott), who has fun duping the shepherd and his son, often while singing a jaunty song and simultaneously relieving them of their money. Eventually all of the players make it back to Sicily, where it is revealed that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of Leontes and that both kings, having reignited their interrupted bromance, consent to have their children marry.
But the biggest reveal of all is left to Paulina, who announces that a sculpture in Hermione's likeness that has long been in the works is now ready to be shown to the court. When the curtain is drawn to reveal the actress, Malani, who plays the queen, everyone marvels at the verisimilitude of the sculpture, including the fact that the artist seems to have coincidentally made Hermione age sixteen years like the rest of them. Then, counselling Leontes and the others that they mustn't succumb to superstition in explaining what they're about to see, Paulina announces that she will make the sculpture move. And with that, she brings Hermione back to life, to be reunited with her grown daughter and, for better or worse, her feckless husband.
The play's ending, a coup de theatre that is here all the more effective for the lack of spectacle that accompanies it, is utterly fantastical but precisely because of that underscores the themes of faith and belief--or the lack thereof--that course through it. And here we must come back to the central figure of Paulina and how in this production the focusing of our gaze through hers (both acts open with Paulina/Paulina-as-Time functioning as a chorus and leading the company in a group dance) makes the sexual politics of the play feel utterly contemporary without being heavy-handed. That is, Paulina's condemnation of Leontes for not believing in the faithfulness of his wife and her indignation at the spectacle of Hermione's trial should remind us of how in the prosecution of sex crimes, the burden of proof continues to remain with the female victim.
Then, too, the metatheatricality of the final scene--showing us how a work of art is made to come to life--reminds us that the make-believe world of the stage is also about making belief--and not merely by agreeing to suspend disbelief. In the case of this production we are aided immeasurably in our acceptance of the "magic of the theatre" by the simple and unfussy set design by Pam Johnson, by the similarly sleek costumes of Carmen Alatorre (including a fantastic use of masks), and by the movement score of Tracey Power. Gibson also coaxes mostly excellent performances from his cast, an unusual number of which (for a Shakespearean romance, at any rate) have moments where they are required to pitch their characters' speeches outward to the audience. None more so than Paulina. And I can think of no actress in Vancouver more skilled at inviting an audience to empathize and identify with the action unfolding before them on stage than Lines. When she opens her arms towards us, smiles and tilts her head in a gesture that says "come with me," it's awfully hard to resist.