The Streaming Experience: Shakespeare’s Globe and Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale
This is a play that suffers from something akin to theatrical bipolar, manuevering deep into unmedicated tragedy and paranoia but then, midway, shifting to some form of musical romance full of delusional play and music. Originally published in the First Folio of 1623, The Winter’s Tale is considered one of Shakespeare’s magical “problem plays”, for that very pathological duality. The first three acts are filled with an intense dark dash of psychological accusational torture, while the final two are somewhat lighter and comedic, and even though the last bit gives one more Kingly punch of paternal disturbia, The Winter’s Tale always finds it’s way to a happy statuesque ending, finding more of a commonality with other Shakespearean comedies than his tragedies.
The tale of this sordid Winter is made up of two opposing halves, just like my weekend of streaming theatre. I found myself watching two very different versions aligned and designated into two very dissimilar camps. Shakespeare’s Globe finds a way to enrich and deliver the piece with joyful precision, making the harshness of cold Sivilia, where King Leontes decsends down into a rabbit hole of jealousy, clear and sharp, while the pastoral Bohemia, where 16 years later, his lost daughter Perdita lives in love amounst merry shepherds, delightful and detailed. It realizes itself as something akin to a very well put together teaching tool for high school students, enlightening their posture to Shakespeare while also avidly entertaining them. The Globe has a way to make the words of Shakespeare sing wisely and wittily out, embracing its audience in the pure joy of the event and the play. Cheek by Jowl, a London based theatre group, is known for its smart innovation offering up productions cut from a very different, somewhat more refined and modern cloth. Their streamed production of The Winter’s Tale finds abstract modernism within the daringness that is asked of the piece without ever loosing itself to the implausibilities and magic of Shakespeare’s last solo-written play. It challenges us to see beyond the classical cut into another place entirely, full of well-known speeches and text abstractly united for a deeper purpose. Placed side by side, the two show excitedly illustrate just how wide-ranged a Shakespeare play can be without ever throwing away the penned order of the story and the creativity of theatre itself.
The Winter’s Tale, as if told by the young prince at bedtime to a raptured audience, follows the King of Sicilia, Leontes, who falls victom to the raging fever of jealousy. He unconsciously grabs hold tight to the unfounded paranoid belief that his dear good friend, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes, is having a passionate love affair with his faithful and very pregnant wife, Hermoine. The wild mad fantasy spins out of control driving himself down into the darker belief that the unborn child in Hermoine’s belly in not of his own making, but borne out of a secret love affair with Polixenes. There is no proof or good reason for this extreme folly, beyond that it is a belief that gribs Leontes so tightly that it drives him mad. It’s strong illogical pull results in a disastorous domino-effect that leaves both Hermione and their young son, Mamillius, dead, and sends the newly born female child out into the dangerous woods where she will surely perish in the bear-ravaged wilderness.
From the last pages of brutal Sicilia, the most famous and challenging stage direction of any Shakespearean play, “Exit, pursued by a bear”, brings the harsh madness to an end. The baby is found, by a shepherd and son, quickly flipping the switch from tragedy to a comedic resolution and new beginning in the starkly different land of Polixenes’ Bohemia. The air and light is different here, and the land of the shepherd is full of festivities and love. In the latter scenes, The Winter’s Tale finds pleasure, love, and music in the survival and growth of Perdita, the abandoned daughter of King Leontes. She is now sixteen years old, and the beautiful young woman, after being raised by the loving shepherd, has fallen deeply in love with the equally transfixed Prince Florizel, Polixenes’s rebellious but honorable son. They want against all odds to be married, and even though Polixenes is being left out of the planning because it is known he would object, their intended marriage reunites Leontes with, not only the daughter he believes to be dead by his own order, but his dear old friend whom he wrongly accused of having an affair with his wife. It’s most definitely an odd twist that brings all back into good graces with one another, and the play joyfully concludes when a life-like statue of his beloved wife, Hermione returning to life (was she ever really dead, or just “mostly dead” – but that’s a different story), uniting the now repentant husband, the reinvigorated wife, and the lost daughter into each other’s arms with all past wrongs forgiven, along with the loving reunion of Prince Florizel and his father, the King of Bohemia. Sweet, right?
Luckily for all, the twisted tale of madness turns itself around into a comedic story filled with love and romance, with everyone finding reconnection and resolution within the final few scenes. In its bipolared disorder, The Winter’s Tale poses a series of daring complications to any director who willingly takes on this problem play. Cheek by Jowl dives head first into the mess, and layers exploitative talk-show modernism on top, wonderfully daring us to disagree. At The Globe, director Blanche McIntyre (Headlong’s The Seagull) keeps the action floating along quite simply and effectively using a different angle from beginning to end. The first bit, designated by the more somber middle eastern robes for the lads and ladies of Sicilia (with a pair of oddly thrown in Elizabethan outfits near the end), finds its sure footedness in the clarity, shifting to a more contemporary design for those country folk and disguised gentry in the land of Bohemia at the end. Designed with a fun flair for floral shirts and snakeskin boots, the patterns of the opposites rally forth and onward until they come smashingly together in the final few scenes. McIntyre stays clear, telling the complicated tale with strong voices and sharp minds, delivering excellent and enjoyable performances from all. The standout who represents all that McIntyre is trying to do throughout, is Norah Lopez-Holden as Perdita. She finds balance in her own brand of bipolar with authentic speeches of care and engagement, jabbing in a few sharp angry blasts of frustration and disappointment that registers authentically. The devious trouble-maker, Autolycus also has a certain amount of fun and frolic in the spritely steps of Becci Gemmell, giving us some genuinely mischievous moments that are equalled to the nicely rendered shepherd family portrayed enjoyably by Jordan Metcalfe and Annette Badland.
The entire cast finds easily understandable meaning in the Shakespearean text, finding the pathway to deliver the tale as perfectly as one could hope. It’s a sparse but clever production, as most are at Shakespeare’s Globe, working well for the style and structure of theatre. The first bit of this tale is utterly serious and twists forcibly in the psychological uncertainty of rage and jealousy. As the pregnant Hermoine, Priyanga Burford (2017 televised film adaptation of King Charles III) attempts to find strength of character within each moment, but comes off a bit cool, giving us less bandwidth to attach to her frightened anguish. Sirine Saba (“The Black Forest“) as her ally, Pauline, comes off as the stronger of the two, standing up to the wild jealousy like a warrior remaining upright against the brutal force of a hurricane. As that unwieldy storm, Leontes, solidly portrayed by Will Keen (Trafalgar Studios’ Huis Clos), delivers emotional clarity as he falls head first into a pit of dementia. It’s manic and sharp, with speeches that stutter but stay true in the roaring fire. His undocumented zeal lands a bit more on the lighter side of anger, particularly when compared to the more dangerously violent Cheek by Jowl modern-dress production, directed with a mature force by co-founder Declan Donnellan (West End’s Shakespeare in Love).
Their Leontes, portrayed intensely by the exciting Orlando James (2005’s ‘Doctor Who‘) swings wildly to and fro with unnerving violent energy. His jealousy is unhinged almost scarily, raging and ranting in a fit that borders on hysteria. Its manic emotional tantruming is easily mimiced by and seen in his young son, Mamillius, played uncomfortably by Tom Cawte, who throws himself down in an unstable unnerving manner, physicalizing his father’s complex mental reactions in a most disturbing of ways. They are a match made in family trauma, and one that makes sense psychologically but cracks the action into sharp cutting shards impossible to reconnect. Its off-putting at moments, much like the bursts of disturbed laughter that swings out from Leontes after the denoucing verdict of the Oracle. He’s far more terrifying than anything The Globe throws at us, and in that uniquely different curve, the two productions fly far from one another, bringing a compelling beauty to each vantage point.
I have never been to Cheek by Jowl‘s Silk Street Theatre (now on my list of must-dos), but in the streamed broadcast available on their YouTube channel as part of the three play schedule, the wide space is gloriously unpacked before our eyes, There is a large wooden shipping container backdropping a long white bench where the action plays out with a sculptured precision. The production puts forth an abstract minimalistic line where the jealous madness freezes the visuals for contemplation, while painting a picture of the tangled web inside the King’s conflicted mind. It wraps itself up in made-up conflict and accusation, as the temperature of pain and anger rocket upward to burning hot levels.
Cheek by Jowl‘s Hermione, dynamically portrayed by Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Gate’s Twelfth Night), finds the extra layer of distraught pain that is missing at The Globe. Punched and pulled off to jail, the jab hits us all hard in the gut, making us flinch solidly to the shocking stab to the pregnant belly. Leontes’ violent attack kicks his wife into early labour, followed by a thunderous crash from the wooden slats falling downward abruptly. Under a bright white beam of light, the unfathonable storm that has been unleashed shockingly reveals the destruction of the King’s son along with his own crowned sanity in one forceful action, bound together in a deafening deathbed clash.
As the King and Queen entreat their case to the Gods at the planked lecturn, their singular blown up faces are projected with power behind on the wooden wall. We see with clarity what death is doing, giving all a closer look into the harshness of the lines, and pained shock that lives inside. The best blood turns to infected jelly, they say, as the process illuminates with a devastating focus, the core of this Winter’s Tale, in a much grander force than the Globe‘d other. It enlargens the tyrannical denial of Apollo’s verdict and the controlled anger of the “Good Queen“. The hysteria that engulfs the King effectively conveys all that is required of the moment to make the remainder of the tale of two countries make somewhat more sense, at least emotionally. It bashes us forcibly with a more adult-like madness than The Globe‘s gentler clarity ever could. The sharp lines and non-decorated surfaces focus the eye on the threatening creation, and we swallow nervously as the hyper intensity delivers the deadly half-ending. The plainness of the space has meaning, but the thought-out reveal comes after, once the rampaging beast is projected and his hunger satisfied (quite effectively, I might add), and the land of Bohemia comes cleanly into focus.
As designed with a clean-cut aesthetic by Nick Ormerod, with shifting symbolic illumination by lighting designer Judith Greenwood, the piece is constructed with a clearly defined separation of country and culture. Donnellan’s The Winter’s Tale finds clarity in the disconnect between the two with some dirty behind the door work and a rotation of all things for this new world order to come alive. His production beautifully uses color-coded cues to highlight the radically unique sensesibilites of the two communities. The former greens and blues illuminated the madness and uncertainty of the Sicilian courtroom, while the warm reds and yellow deliver a Bohemian sense of passion and sexual chemistry that are aflame in this new and exciting land.
Cheek by Jowl’s strong physical production transports the tale to Bohemia, opening up the crate’s walls to allow more air and festive light into the land. The revelry is spirited, driven with a sexy fun force by the thieving mischief of the charming Autolycus, played handsomely by the ripped jean-wearing Ryan Donaldson (West End’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), engaging in his meta-marvelous banter with us all. We give in to his solid “shout out to all the poor people in the cheap seats”, as Donaldson musically pulls us under his wings, as he slyly pickpockets our heart with ease. Perdita, played marvelously by Eleanor McLoughlin (“Forgotten Man“), and Florizel, beautifully portrayed by Sam Woolf (National Theatre’s Antony & Cleopatra), do their romantic duty with ease, even as he knowingly (and secretly) enrages his father, Poloxenes, played wildly by Edward Sayer (“Hearts & Minds“). There is good flavor in all their interactions, even as Cheek by Jowl spins wildly, and somewhat inventively off the handle with it’s madcap talk-show ridiculousness. You’ll either love it or hate it, but the modern antics are maddeningly fun, making little sense of Shakespeare’s convoluted second half, but the spontaneity rarely fails to keep our interest firmly in its favor.
The frenzied action that brings everyone back to Sicilia for the warmer-than-though ending delivers the goods well. It threads the knots together quickly, before heading off to the Pigmaleon-esque ending that never really works for my won senses. The unifying of all around the statue of Hermoine, in both versions, at Shakespeare’s Globe and at Cheek by Jowl, tries to find closure in the often-argued conclusion. The Cheek by Jowl bench returns, and the characters line up with Radmall-Quirke sitting perfectly still lit by the warm orange of Bohemia. Life for the hidden wife returns, and The Winter’s Tale discovers its resolution. Both versions find their revitalized finale, as both Kings learn to swallow their unwise rants against their loved ones. Leontes crawls to his wife, fully repentant, while the other King embraces the son he so violently railed against earlier on. Love is restored and all is unbelievable forgiven. A second chance is given to the men, as honestly and clearly as Cheek by Jowl‘s reputation is firmly emplanted in my Shakespearean heart. It is clearly a company I need to experience sometime in the future when theatrical life returns to something close to a new norm. Just like The Globe whose straight-forward clarity is something I need to experience first-hand. Their productions continue to enhance my understanding of Shakespeare’s great text while playfully remaining the entertainment they were once meant to be. But until that time, I am continuously thankful for these great companies live streaming their inventive and wonderful Shakespearean productions for us to contrast and compare, produced by companies that know their glory and strength. What’s up next Cheek by Jowl? and The Globe? I can not wait for more to dig my Shakespearean teeth into.
For those who are able in these trying times, please consider donating to these companies or any arts organizations near you, as they strive to continue to provide artistic beauty and intellectual stimulation in a world shaken by this pandemic. My hope is that these streaming events will remind people just how vital the arts and Shakespeare are to our communities, our sense of self, and (for many of us) our sanity.