First out of the traps is Declan Donnellan's production of the play for the internationally renowned Cheek By Jowl company, who open the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow's 2017 season next week. Hot (or cold) on the heels of this, next month, the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh open their own production of the play, here directed by Max Webster, currently an associate director at the Old Vic theatre in London.
Not actually set in winter at all, but named after the sort of fireside tales one might be told during the season, The Winter's Tale is is a play of two very different halves. The first, set in the kingdom of Sicilia, sees the king, Leontes, mistakenly presumes his wife Hermione to have committed adultery with his best friend, Polixenes. The much lighter second half, set sixteen years later in Bohemia and Sicilia, focuses on redemption and happy ever afters all round. It is this seeming inconsistency in terms of dramatic tone that in part appealed to both directors.
“It’s a play about love, loss, and the difficulty of forgiveness,” says Donnellan. “It’s about how very important it is to forgive yourself and about the uselessness of guilt. The more we worked on it we also realised that a lot of the play comes from Leontes having a breakdown over being abandoned by his fried Polixenes, how he finds he can’t admit or reconcile himself to this, which is just in front of him, so must imagine something completely irrational and destructive as a reason for his anxiety. We all hate being abandoned, but sometimes it upsets us so traumatically that we cannot see it anymore, and although we look quite normal most of the time, we are in fact quite ill. That is Leontes' predicament.”
For Webster, who recently directed Royal Lyceum artistic director David Greig's stage version of Dr Suess' The Lorax at the Old Vic, there is much humour beyond this.
“It's going to be funny,” he says of his production, in which he will be re-locating the action to Edinburgh and Fife. “That shift in tone is quite magical. In the first half it's almost like a contemporary thriller like House of Cards, and then it makes this leap, so it becomes something else again. Shakespeare was a mature writer by the time he wrote The Winter's Tale, and this is an experiment, with language as much a everything else, which he wrote with a real sense of confidence.”
Like Webster, Donnellan names The Winter's Tale as one of his favourite plays, and this new production isn't the first time he has explored it.
“Both Nick and myself love the play,” Donnellan says, referring to Cheek By Jowl's designer and co-founder Nick Ormerod. “I’ve seen it many many times in different versions around the world, and had directed it once before in Russian for Lev Dodin in St Petersburg in 1997. That production still plays in rep at the Maly Theatre there. I’ve always wanted to do the play in English, and thought that Orlando James, who’s been with us for a few years now, would make an excellent Leontes. It’s always good to work on a play with a specific actor or actors that you have in mind. That’s not to say it makes it straightforward. You find many interesting and new things along the way that can only come out in rehearsals.”
To this end, Webster's cast features John Michie, last seen onstage in Scotland at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in Rob Drummond's play, Grain in the Blood, as Leontes. The cast also includes Scottish stage stalwarts Maureen Beattie and Jimmy Chisholm.
While the Lyceum's production of The Winter's Tale marks Webster's first outing on a main Scottish stage, Cheek By Jowl's take on the play sees the company returning to Scotland following the company's Russian language version of Measure For Measure at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival.
“We love coming to Scotland when we can,” says Donnellan. “Our first chair John Scott Moncrieff registered us as a Scottish Charity thirty five years ago. Cheek by Jowl’s very first performance was in Edinburgh at St Columba’s by the Castle on 17th August 1981, Wycherley’s The Country Wife. The Edinburgh Festival is fantastic, our Russian company loved coming over in August. We had such a great response from the people there. Some had never seen Shakespeare in Russian before.
“We are personally hugely excited to make our debut at the Citz. We drove up often in the eighties and fell in love with the Citz chutzpah. Never parochial, always international, never navel-gazing about national identity, always throwing bridges across centuries of text, across Europe. Throwing a warm wicked smile across cultures. Never apologising for vision. In these days after Brexit that legacy feels more fragile and precious than ever before.
“There was never anything earnest about the Citz, there was always enough of a whiff of sulphur about the work to make the place ambivalent, alive and adult. Never dumbed down, always entertaining. A proper place for adults. Above all there was the physical presence, the humanity of Giles Havergal, there in the foyer, welcoming, mediating the stage with the audience. Smiling and approachable. A giant artistic vision coupled with humble humanity. How totally wonderful. I like to feel that somehow even in some small way we were affected by that, and follow in those shoes.”
Cheek By Jowl opened The Winter's Tale in the United States last year, and visit Glasgow as part of an international tour.
“The reaction of the American audiences has been overwhelming,” says Donnellan. “There were some interesting comments about political resonances of the play, but we find wherever we play Shakespeare there will always be political resonances.”
This is something that Webster also recognises.
“Today's politics is changing,” says Webster. “There is lots of anxiety about things that we thought were certain, but which suddenly aren't, and that has an impact. This is a play about diversity and community, and it feels very much like an important play for now.”
Donnellan goes even further.
“It shows what politicians dare not speak of,” he says, “the human need to destroy. But it also shows us the possibility of forgiveness, of redemption and hope. I think these are very important and relevant things to consider right now, as they were four hundred years ago, and will probably be in another four hundred years.”
Cheek By Jowl's production of The Winter's Tale runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-28; the Royal Lyceum Theatre's production runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, February 10-March 4www.citz.co.uk
The Herald, January 17th 2017