If there’s one true thing about Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale, in BAM’s 2016 Next Wave Festival this week, it’s that it has registered the mood and the memes of our last election cycle. The production comes from the Barbican’s 2015 season but elicits an unwelcome sensation of déjà vu on American shores, with a dangerously volatile leader whose preposterous accusations take down everyone around him. Director Declan Donnellan layers on melodrama, sexual tension, paranoia, buffoonery and a hailstorm of locker-room roughhousing to tell the story of an insanely jealous Leontes, made only a little lighter by some popular television tropes, a crooner and line dancing. Donnellan’s technique doesn’t so much resemble thick brush strokes applied to a canvas as it does whole cans of paint thrown in heavy arcs that splatter on impact. The Winter’s Tale remains a “problem play” here, although the nagging question shifts from how to resolve Shakespeare’s two dissonant halves, to how to shake off an unpleasant aftertaste.
The temptation to use a loud palette has always existed with The Winter’s Tale, a romance built on grand themes like jealousy, pride, loyalty and redemption that push everyone’s buttons, and a magic wand that ties everything up into a happy bow. Yet any production must grapple with how to sufficiently nuance the first act’s violence to connect it to the second act’s comedy, in order for the final act’s resolution to have integrity. Sam Mendes launched his now-defunct Bridge Project with a version seen at BAM in 2009; it offered a complex Leontes played by Simon Russell Beale, but also a cowboy-themed second act with Ethan Hawke as Autolycus that shot the production in the foot. More successfully, Kenneth Branagh’s snowy wonderland version at The Garrick in 2015 played happily into the fairytale genre for which Shakespeare intended it – a fantasy to while away a long winter’s night – with Judi Dench’s wise and compassionate Paulina pointing the show’s moral compass and an overriding theme of redemption for Branagh’s flawed yet dignified Leontes.
Donnellan has no time for Shakespearean orthodoxy, keeping only his fatally flawed, irredeemable king in focus, aided in that goal by Cheek by Jowl’s scenographic minimalism. For a play that is chock-a-block with action, designer Nick Ormerod provides only a few white wooden crates that can be shoved around as necessary by the cast and a larger, shipping-size container that opens into versions of a porch, morgue or ship, as needed. This economy has the benefit of expediting the telescoping scene changes: the production runs at a mercifully fast clip.
More than anyone or anything, Leontes fuels that speed and tension. Orlando James plays the king of Sicilia as a temperamental teenage bully, commanding the empty space to torment his victims by running them in circles, punching, slapping, wrestling, spinning and grabbing them as if he’d been let loose on some unsupervised corner of the playground. He is mean, petty, cruel, misogynistic and just plain odious. James gives us a Leontes we can despise, but this will also deny him Shakespeare’s intended redemption in the show’s final act. It could be he’s raving mad, in which case we could pity him, but there seems to be something more foul afoot, since the other characters appear contaminated by his vileness. Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione is a smothering, revengeful and incestuous mother and a dominated, needy wife to such a tyrant. Her evident desire for him even at her trial, where he sentences her to death on imaginary charges of infidelity, rings as true as the poor actress’s balloon-shaped pregnancy prop. Their son Mamillius (a strong Tom Cawte in a thankless role) is their whining, codependent offspring. Nice family.
Things improve, slightly, after intermission when a completely new personality takes over the schizophrenic narrative. The previously dour cast now strings up party lights, grabs guitars and an accordion and, decked out as Bohemian shepherds in modern motley (neon, sparkles and oilskins, as imagined by Angela Burns), tries to make us forget dark Sicilia, with a country shindig where Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus plays a Chris Lane in skinny jeans to the delight of the swooning lassies. The mood swing at least brings a few laughs and the ardent couple formed by Eleanor McLoughlin’s feral Perdita (Leontes’ abandoned daughter) and Sam Woolf’s prowling Florizel, the enamored heir to the Bohemian throne. It seems it’s not enough to have fun with the country folk, though; Donnellan takes a swipe at them as well, in a segment of an imagined TV couch show, “Time to Talk” where the rustics rise to the embarrassing excitement of airing their dirty laundry while the cameras roll and audiences laugh. As unhappy as Sicilia was, I was relieved to return there to get on to the dénouement.
On the way, however, a menacing creature rears its head, and it’s not the Bear from Shakespeare’s famous stage direction in the third act. Leontes may well be a madman but an accumulation of choices around him from casting to costuming to direction bring to mind some regrettable racial tropes. David Carr plays Camillo, a Sicilian nobleman who refuses Leontes’ orders to murder the Bohemian king, Polyxenes. However, his Camillo is treated as a much abused manservant by both a vicious Leontes (who beats and kicks him) and a dismissive Polixenes. The supporting male roles in the Sicilian kingdom look uniformed like maître de’s in their dark suits, but as Carr’s similarly liveried Camillo was being savagely abused by a preppy Leontes, I was reminded uncomfortably of the bow-tied Uncle Ben’s character, not to mention any of the recent examples of excessive force used on black men by white authority figures.
Joy Richardson also plays Paulina, the noblewoman who speaks truth to power in her defense of the wrongly accused queen, but Donnellan’s direction of her leans heavily into the trope of the Strong Black Woman who endures physical and emotional pain so others, usually her white employers, don’t have to. Richardson’s Paulina fulfills this role and more, even acting like a protective nanny to James’ petulant Leontes, cradling his head on her shoulder and comforting him as she makes him promise to follow her advice in all things. Race was at the heart of the last election, and in its wake we now have to face down the mainstreaming of white supremacism. Donnellan’s choices have resonances here that he perhaps never anticipated, and while he may not be in the wrong for such an oversight, neither is his lack of vision to his credit.
Donnellan’s interests lie with his boyish, braying king on whom the dying stage lights linger in an almost mystical mood; they frame Leontes’ joyful – or crazy – gaze as he repossesses his miraculously resurrected queen. However, this production doesn’t give us any reason to share that sympathy. The first act is too cruel, the comedy of the second too forced after such violence, and nothing else carries the force of a conviction, except that portrait of a tyrannical king. When bullies act badly, only talk about reform and then get everything they want, I can’t applaud. It’s too much like our dangerous real world, one I’d much rather see challenged by theater than confirmed in its worst behaviors.