The Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of The Winter's Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a magnificent work; inviting the audience to become the "witnesses" of this supernatural play of love, jealousy, reunion, redemption, and forgiveness. The small indoor theatre space at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre complex is lit only by candles, including the chandelier as the main light source. When necessary, each actor holds a candle, which serves as a personal spotlight. This ancient lighting “technology” transforms the theatre into various locales from the palace of Leontes in Sicilia to a pastoral in Bohemia. The performance is accompanied by a small orchestra consisting of a violin, a trumpet, several guitars, a santouri (Greek dulcimer), an accordion, and a bass viol. The musicians, led by musical director Stephen Bentley-Klein in the upper gallery, play these instruments and evoke the specific atmospheres and landscapes thorughout the text.
The Playhouse’s thrust stage has numerous entrance points, allowing the performers to seamlessly make their entrances and exits. The “tiring house” consists of a big arch-shaped center door with two doors on each side. The aisles and stairs to the stage all function as the hallway, paths, and roads between the two locations. These locations represent the private and public spaces of the characters, with minimal changes to the set like the addition of a chaise, thereby enriching the words and worlds of Shakespeare.
Leontes's (John Light) sudden change from the affectionate and caring husband of Hermione (Rachael Stirling) and friend of Polixenes (Simon Armstrong) to a jealous and cruel tyrant is presented as a sudden yet subtle mood swing, magnifying the vulnerability of those who are at the mercy of his decisions. The staging of the persecution that Hermione endures is chilling—Hermione, shackled in leg irons, is dragged into the theatre from a foyer of the playhouse through the aisle to the stage. Her white (but soiled from childbirth) undergarment explains the cruel and terrible treatments she has received. Leontes's relentless accusation finally prompts her despair to transform to rage as she realizes that she is to be executed.
Shakespeare scholars describe Hermione as one of the “mature heroines” found in Shakespeare’s late plays such as Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, all of which are performed in the 2015-16 season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Shakespeare’s mature heroines are examples of “an ideal of curative feminine power” who are abandoned by the male protectors. Hermione loses her husband’s love and protection but gains love and support from a more reliable ally, the noblewoman Paulina (Niamh Cusack). Hermione’s plea and rage at her husband’s injustice and Paulina’s plea and condemnation of the same all contribute to the contrast between the women’s rationality and integrity and Leontes’s mad jealousy. Leontes’s excess of passion and madness results in the deaths of Hermione and their beloved son Mamillius (Alfie Lowles/Oliver Whitehouse). The magical transformation of Hermione into a statue 16 years later reflects the damage done and the length of time needed to heal such violence, cruelty, and injustice.
The character Time functions as an agent to express the passage of years and apologize to the audience for the number of years that pass between Act III and IV. The casting of Cusack (who also plays Paulina) as Time reinforces Paulina’s supernatural power to preserve Hermione for 16 years as a statue and to resurrect her when the right time has come.
The director Longhurst has deftly joined the play’s separate parts of tragedy and comedy. When the baby Perdita (a bundled-up cloth) cries in the arms of Antigonus (David Yelland) in Act III, Scene 3, the crying is made by a grown-up Perdita (Tia Bannon) in the upper gallery. This introduces the audience, in advance, to adult Perdita who serves as the key connection between Sicilia and Bohemia.
The rogue Autolycus (James Garnon) adds not only a comic relief but the perspective to properly assess this family saga. At one point, Garnon drops his pouch filled with stolen purses in the lap of an audience member who “protects” the pouch until Autolycus finishes his pick-pocketing. He enters the palace disguised as one of the noble guests. The Play insinuates that he may stay there forever, underscoring a reversal of fortune that ties to the themes of the play. Autolycus also serves as a clever witness to the behavior of people across social classes, who reflect the audience then and now.
Globe productions normally feature costumes that utilize the fabrics, patterns, and stitches from Shakespeare’s time. Leontes, Polixenes, Hermione, Paulina, and the Lords and Ladies wear period costumes (although the patterns are close to those of the Victorian Age) made of cotton and taffeta. The color of their costumes is kept white and this, I can only assume, is their interpretation of the Sumptuary Law that regulated what noblemen and noble women could wear. The exception is the synthetic dress that Hermione wears as a statue which unfortunately also had a visible a side zipper. Simply draping Hermione in a silk cloth might have been a better choice for this production.
The simplicity of staging (by designer Richard Kent) works to the advantage of this production. For example, “Exit, pursued by a bear” is visualized as an enormous shadow-puppet, signaling the audience that the play is moving from tragedy to comedy. The sheep-shearing festival scene is full of movement, dance, and music. The dynamic and energetic satyr dance, by three men in faux fur legs with goat skulls on their heads, evokes the sense of mysterious power running throughout the piece. This production shows that the festival scene does not need flowers and butterflies or an elaborate cyclorama. It creates a bonfire in the middle of the stage, illuminating the performers’ dances and enabling the audience to imagine an elaborate forest setting. Overall, this is a magical performance that is highly recommended.