Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Winter’s Tale was supposed to happen last year. The same planned company of actors has now returned to restage the production for the BBC’s Lights Up, an online theatre festival. There’s something encouraging on a practical level about this reassurance that actors, who have struggled so much financially and professionally over the past year, haven’t been entirely left behind by the companies who hired them. The work that was meant to happen is happening.
On the other hand, this Winter’s Tale feels very much like a pre-pandemic leftover. Erica Whyman’s production looks and sounds like the era when the NT was raiding its archives to great acclaim in the early days of the pandemic. The aesthetic is stagey and polished and made to go in front of an audience, not really a camera.
In some ways it probably suffers from airing just a few weeks after the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, which wasn’t perfect, but at least sought to make something of its hybrid format. It also reimagined a play that was meant to happen last year, but reworked it for the constrained rehearsal and performance circumstances of our present moment, actively adapting it from one medium to another.
The Winter’s Tale is admittedly a particularly tough one for cinematic adaptation, with its sudden and extreme emotions, endless exposition, and key emotional moments that happen offstage. It’s the story of a man named Leontes, whose sudden and inexplicable certainty that his wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend Polixenes leads him to imprison and try her, banishing their infant daughter to apparent death on the shores of Bohemia, leading to Hermione’s death as well. Sixteen years later, Polixenes is back in his home country, trying to meddle in the romantic affairs of his son, who has fallen in love with a mysterious shepherdess. It’s a late Shakespeare play, so lost children are found, the dead maybe aren’t really, and everything is resolved.
The setting here is the 1950s to the late 1960s, not that this means or adds anything. The first half, in Sicilia, is all elegant pale wood and posh-generic tails and tuxes. When the characters arrive in Bohemia, poor theatre devices like ladders and manually manipulated props and set pieces are occasionally introduced for no apparent reason.
The RSC sent out an entire press release trumpeting the inclusion of two Deaf actors, William Grint and Bea Webster, in two very minor roles. But here, the production team makes the baffling choice to subtitle Webster when she speaks as Hermione’s maid, and also to subtitle Grint’s signing as a foolish young Shepherd in the second act… while also having other actors sometimes repeat his lines. This in-between strategy is a perfect example of the production’s overall apparent lack of interest in making use of its televised format, and in finding elegant ways to stage BSL. If you’re going to use subtitles, then commit to using them and don’t worry about clunky onstage kind-of-translation. Or else, commit to treating the Deaf characters the way Deaf people are in the world, and have their words be either fully translated, or fully understood and answered in kind by the characters they speak to.
Otherwise, we’re offered solid and unremarkable versions of the characters (Anne Odeke is a particularly fun Autolycus, with a fantastic singing voice, but is poorly served by having to play a clown role with no audience to provide laughter), Tom Piper and Madeleine Girling’s designs are elegant and fill the camera frame while still looking distinctly theatrical. It’s genuinely difficult to find anything to highlight in terms of performances, themes, or even aesthetics. There’s nothing wrong with having plain old Shakespeare. That’s what the Royal Shakespeare Company on the BBC has kind of been for, in the past: the plain-vanilla versions you watch in school when you’re assigned a Shakespeare play and don’t want to read it. And that’s what this production of The Winter’s Tale is.
What it is also, in some ways, is a play about how people and places can transform through suffering cruelty and loss. That’s certainly the angle I’d take if I had to pitch this play this year: bad things happen, but then the spring comes. People who were separated meet again.
I’m not saying I wish there had been some kind of heavy-handed pandemic content (though there is a very clunky joke about it), but maybe there’s room for some kind of curiosity about the journey that theatre has been on in the past year. Artists have found so many interesting ways to stage theatre, including Shakespeare, over the past year. Liveness and video have been combined in fascinating ways, abandoned projects revived in new forms, and new questions raised about Shakespeare and what it’s for in a changed world. This production has Leontes stare down the barrel of the camera when he gives soliloquies, and sometimes it switches between an onstage camera and the actual camera for no reason. If they had filmed this production live in the Swan in Stratford, it would not be materially different.
Maybe that’s good? Maybe people will find a different kind of comfort than that, a resolution that also suits The Winter’s Tale, which ends with friendships repaired and families restored. Don’t worry: soon the theatre will be back, exactly the same as it was.
The Winter’s Tale is available to watch on BBC iPlayer, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season. More info here.