Natasha Tripney once wrote that ‘Maxine Peake has the most eloquent wrists…’, a phrase that’s flitted, butterfly-like, in and out of my mind ever since I read it. People speak of actors ‘acting with their whole bodies’ and all that can be conveyed when someone tells part of a story using both their voice box and, for example, their crossed-over feet. It’s a shame this is a remark made about only some performances because humans are humans with their whole bodies, their emotions told as much through nail biting, hand-holding and fiddling with salt shakers as speech. Anyway, if Natasha’s review of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Manchester Royal Exchange was an ode to Peake’s wrists, then this is my clunky poetry to Will Keen’s right ankle.
Unlike Lear or Othello, Leontes in The Winter’s Taleun ravels with with one hell of a lot of acceleration. The audience are given little build up to his disintegration into violent jealousy. So it helps that Keen’s Leontes appears as a container for a destabilising force that would have come out one way or another – if not towards Hermione here and now, then next week or next month. Sitting in the Globe, I become a bit obsessed with watching his lower right leg shaking, twitching, moving. He can’t keep it still, the heel is in a constant battle with the floorboards, which it never quite makes it down to meet. Is it odd to watch whole passages of a play as conveyed though a performer’s lower leg?
Probably – although perhaps only as strange as it is to experience a live performance as though only the playwright’s words mattered. So much of what you need to know about Leontes is contained in that vibrating leg, specifically the deep insecurity and malcontent that underpins his fury. It’s the same leg he eventually raises above the swaddled ball of a baby Perdita, threatening to stamp out her brains. But what’s more interesting is how, the rest of the time, this same leg doesn’t signal ‘threat’ or ‘assertiveness’ at all. It reads as angst or self-doubt. A man crumbling from his own feet upwards.
Generally speaking, it’s the performances that make Blanche McIntyre’s production of The Winter’s Tale. Along with Keen’s Leontes, there’s Sirine Saba who makes Paulina a force of elemental feminine energy and a counterweight against the injustice committed by the king. Hermione (Priyanga Burford) is a similarly dignified presence, the quiet stateliness of both women making the destruction of Leontes almost pitiful. The fourth great performance is by Nora Lopez-Holden as Perdita, whose halo-like headdress would have fitted right in at the 2018 Met Gala.*
The flaws are mainly Shakespeare’s fault – the generally uneven tone of drama vs comedy is made more frustrating because the dramatic moments are performed very well here, so you really want everyone to just stick with breaking your heart rather than retreating into a comic interlude. And obviously Exeunt is contractually obliged to never wholeheartedly endorse a staging of The Winter’s Tale THAT DOESN’T CONTAIN A BEAR but instead has a bear’s picture printed on a flappy piece of material.
The leg, for those who are interested, stops shaking after the interval. When Leontes comes back into the story, all that flickering, flashing movement has dissipated. His grief and remorse solidify him. Did you ever play that game as a child where you lie down with closed eyes and someone pretends to press piles of sand onto you, and then when you go to get up, you realise you can’t because the invisible sand has become real and each limb is pinned to the floor? No? Well never mind (that’s something to do on the next bank holiday), the point is that Leontes is now a man weighted down. Feet, heart and soul.
The Winter’s Tale is on until 14 October 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.
* And I thought I’d found the perfect Tabloid Art History picture of a 15th century Flemish Madonna to back up this point. But now I can’t work out who actually painted it (answers on a postcard to Exeunt). Anyway, it looked like this: