Thursday, August 4, 2011

more Winter's Tale, RSC @ Armory

No, of course we wouldn't leave it there, though that line says everything.

The thing about The Winter's Tale is it requires actors who can turn on a dime and still keep the audience from being ejected from the vehicle.  Unlike the luxurious two acts Iago has to twist Othello all up in a state of jealous rage, poor Leontes has to do this on his own in the space of one speech in the first fifteen minutes of the play, all happy cordial one second and seething to explode the next.  Shakespeare doesn't give his actor much in the way of textual aid -- there really isn't anything in the text to indicate prior trouble -- but kind of leaves him to figure out how to get the audience to buy this abrupt 180. 

Likewise in Hermione's reaction to the accusations leveled at her, the text denies the actor the use of tears and upset, but demands she keeps an even keel throughout. Which means the actor has to convey the sudden inner turmoil of the character, and make it plausible she wouldn't shed even a tear at the public spectacle her own husband is making her the center of. No tears, no shouting, no rapid-fire line delivery...basically no shortcuts lesser actors often use to get through scenes like this. Damn. Perhaps one of the reasons this play is so little done, even with its pointedly satisfying ending, is because it's tough to find daredevil actors who can manage these hairpin turns.

Not a problem here.  Greg Hicks somehow manages to walk a very fine line.  Maybe his Leontes has been mulling this for a long while, maybe for a short time only, but the warmth he shows his best friend as he exhorts him to extend his stay, and to his wife as he hands over the job of advocate to her, that warmth evaporates as soon as he steps away and the lighting shifts and he addresses us, the spectators in his head, just as his paranoia has hit the boiling point. We've arrived at an inopportune time. We can see it building in his face as he observes them, saturating his physical presence as he reaches for his son, weighing probability against doubt, evidence against conjecture, and yet his body communicates, if his words are misleading, the fact that this is a drowning man grasping after straws.

Hermione has no textual access to rage or despair, but, as played by Kelly Hunter, neither does she turn ice cold at her husband's public accusation.  She looks at this obstacle suddenly placed before her, and tries reason to get around it.  Looking for a way, and finding none, she cedes the field and makes essentially a tactical retreat until chiller heads prevail.   It's a hard sell, as Hermione herself acknowledges:

...Good my lords, 
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex 
commonly are, the want of which vain dew 
perchance shall dry your pities...

She has to say that and still keep the audience on her side. Which is a trick, because of course what she is acknowledging (now a ridiculous anachronism, surely) is that the public will see women who fail to get weepy under fire as evil emasculating harpies. Poor King.  (And now I think of it, one could hotlink this scene straight to here...)

Kelly Hunter plays it with just enough emotion not to tip the very delicate balance Shakespeare requires: surprise as she's blind-sided by the accusation, then leaping quickly and vehemently to her own defense as Leontes appeals her guilt to the gentlemen attending him, speaking as if she's already on trial, and all the while she has to keep her chair, her feet propped up, because, as all the world can see, she's wicked pregnant. "I never wish'd to see you sorry, now I trust I shall," she says on the way to prison, and kisses her estranged husband on the cheek, and he like a brat schoolboy trapped in the Maiden Aunt Zone of Influence pulls out his handkerchief and tries to scrub away all trace.

The subtlety by which Hunter plays this scene means there's a great deal stored up for the trial scene, where Hermione appears barefoot and in the blood-stained clothes she has delivered in.  By now Paulina (Noma Dumezweni) has intervened, leaving the new-born with Leontes, who has rejected the baby and sent her off to be exposed.  Paulina sets up the political dichotomy of the play by bringing the word ''tyrant" to the table.  "I do come with words as medicinal as true..."  Dumezweni surfs these lines in a seamless performance of the fearless woman, called by some a witch, who speaks unflinchingly to tyranny in public while working the long game behind the scenes to put things ultimately to rights.  

This is getting long, so I'll be short.  Books are the production's overarching leitmotif.  The civilized world of the Sicilian court, represented by bookcases neatly crammed with books, comes crashing down around the trial and defiance of the Delphic oracle, the books landing in chaos on the floor and staying there.  The bear that eats Antigonus is made of them. (Great bear, btw.) In the rustic Bohemia of the latter half, where the thaw is on and the shearing is at hand, torn out pages make for receding snow, and pages make the leaves on trees, a return to original form.  The mummers' dance ("...that have made themselves men all of hair. They call themselves Saltiers, and they have a dance which the wenches say is a gallimaufry of gambols, because they are not in it...") is here an explicit fertility ritual, the "saltiers" clothed in pages. (And which dance is witnessed by a flustered, besieged, tweed-disguised Camillo (John Mackay), like Cecil Sharp fallen among the savages. But of course he gets into it. I loved that.)

Finally Autolycus (Brian Doherty). Peddler, thief, con-man and witness to the plot twists of shepherds, foundlings, princes and kings, he seems to exist to observe and comment, sing some songs, feed the comedy and make a few quick scores, but in a sense he's an odd fifth wheel to the action.  You get the feeling Shakespeare had a better plan for him but that something happened to the plot along the way and he was left hanging. What to do with him, then, when he declares he could have told all but why bother?  When all secrets are revealed and weddings are in order (remember it's a Romance not a Tragedy), the assembled agents sweep out the doors, into the celebrations that are waiting, and close the doors behind them, leaving the straggler Autolycus out beyond the pale.  It grows dark, in the last bit of failing light he sits down, shrugs and smiles, wraps himself against the cold as snow begins to fall.  Winter isn't over yet, and summer doesn't last.

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