Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Winter's Tale @ EFT

Shakespeare is usually an excuse for a lack of imagination on the part of a theatre company. It's a sure fire way to attract audiences - familiarity is better hype than experimentation - and the language, if performed well, is usually enough to hide the tortuous plots and stereotyped characterisations. It's easy enough to pretend to be radical - set King Lear in outer-space - and there is little danger of having any real political controversy. Even the updating of Macbeth by various Polish companies in last year's EIF and Fringe, which tried to connect medieval monarchy to modern war zones, avoided any meaningful commentary on contemporary geopolitics, thanks to the script's awkward insistence on being obsessed with lineage. Even terrorist cells don't assume that a son will receive their father's position.

When the company is The Royal Shakespeare Company, however, these objections don't apply. It's not like they don't try to make Shakespeare relevant, even collaborating with Poland's Song of The Goat for a Macbeth that did break free of the clich├ęs. But as a company, they have the clout to get the right actors, and have a tradition of directing Shakespeare that plays to the bard's strengths without ignoring the last 200 years of stagecraft.

Besides, they are offering The Winter's Tale - not a number that turns up too frequently on the schedules. And it's got Tara Fitzgerald out of Game of Thrones in it, for added cultural capital. The director, Lucy Bailey, is enthusiastic about getting to grips with the tale of jealousy and forgiveness: and has approached its geography to add a dualistic darkness.

"‘The Winter's Tale is set in a notional Sicilia and Bohemia. Most interpretations of the play revolve around the relationship of these two worlds," says Bailey. "When I read the play, I had two strong instincts - that Sicilia and Bohemia were one and the same place, just two different modes of being, and that the "idyll" which is often understood to be Bohemia, is actually Sicilia."

"In our version which is set in the 1860s, the play begins in Sicilia, where Leontes and his court live a sheltered, beautiful dream of a life, bathed in endless sunshine and completely removed from the real world of work and suffering.  It is in essence an Ivory Tower. At the bottom of their tower well beyond view, is Bohemia, where the working men and women, despite their struggle, make the most out of very little. We have tried to encapsulate this in our design for the play."

The Winter's Tale is probably most famous for its stage direction - the one where a bear chases a character off-stage. Like most Shakespeare comedies, the laughs don't come thick and fast - having a happy ending is enough for it not to count as a tragedy - but there is the usual mesh of conflict between the sexes, jealous men (one king thinks the other is having an  affair with his wife for no good reason), attempted murders and lost children. But it all ends with the royals hooking up, after disguising themselves as shepherds and the like.

And the RSC do have an amazing website with resources, including bits of the soundtrack...

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