Director frames Winter's Tale with ancient themes for Bard on the Beach

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      “It all began with the fucking bear.”

      Dean Paul Gibson says this with a laugh that starts in his eyes. He’s happy, if exhausted. For the last 30 minutes, the Straight has been watching Gibson rehearse the cast and crew of The Winter’s Tale, and the experience has been a delightful frenzy. One of the microphones keeps picking up a Chipmunks-style exchange from somewhere off-stage. There are actors singing and two large puppet sheep bleating and, at one point, a giant prop tree crashing into a door that’s supposed to be open. Then there’s Gibson, a tightly controlled tornado whose sense of command never falters, even when he's dancing backward or flinging F-bombs in every other sentence.

      The “fucking bear” to which Gibson is referring is The Winter’s Tale’s biggest claim to fame, and perhaps the most notorious of William Shakespeare’s stage directions—“Exit, pursued by a bear”—which has next to nothing to do with the play itself. The Winter’s Tale’s first three acts are full of drama and tragedy as Leontes, the king of Sicily, becomes convinced that his wife, Hermione, is carrying the child of his best friend, the king of Bohemia. Though an oracle declares that Hermione is innocent, Leontes orders his friend poisoned, his wife jailed and put on trial, and their newborn baby abandoned. Hermione and Leontes’s son, Mamillius, dies from the stress of his mother’s imprisonment, and Hermione is pronounced dead as well. Leontes, chastened and repentant, vows to atone for what he’s done to his family.

      The play then flashes forward 16 years for the final acts and embraces a tonal shift into light romance and comedy with a touch of the surreal. Leontes and Hermione’s abandoned daughter returns to Sicily, where eventually all is revealed, forgiven, and, well, resurrected. When Leontes sees a recently completed statue of Hermione, he breaks down, and suddenly the statue comes to life and the Sicilian royal family is reunited.

      “It’s classic: whenever we don’t listen to the women, all the stuff goes to shit,” Gibson says, pointing out that though The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays, there’s more nuance to this story than to some of the Bard’s earlier works.

      “He has a much more seasoned approach here,” Gibson says. “The thing that gets into Leontes, his jealousy is complex.…It becomes erosive to your trust and your own world, and when you succumb to it—when we succumb to these kinds of things, well, this is a cautionary tale. Shakespeare is telling us not to.”

      It’s not lost on Gibson that almost 400 years after The Winter’s Tale was first published, the horrifying circumstances of the play are no less problematic: male violence, women as possessions instead of people, sexism and misogyny. He acknowledges those themes, but he also wants to explore the hope he sees in the play’s surreal ending.

      “Imagine if we could meet someone again that we perhaps treated badly,” Gibson says. “I can imagine that that gives me a heart full of hope and faith. That’s my spirit, that’s my jam. Imagine that you could meet somebody and say, ‘Listen, I messed you over something terrible. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that as a result of that we lost a child, or our good friend, or lost a husband. It’s a terrible thing.’ ” But I’ve seen shows like this, reality shows on TLC, people who’ve been responsible for committing heinous acts, and then you see the family coming in to meet those people after all these years and say, ‘I forgive you.’ ”

      The timelessness of betrayal and forgiveness loomed large when Gibson was reckoning with his vision for The Winter’s Tale. He was travelling in Greece with his boyfriend, visiting ancient ruins, living in the midst of things that have withstood and survived. He couldn’t shake a cubist image of a bear that he saw online. That image, and cubist art in general, became the visual inspiration for the production, and it’s the tension between cubism and antiquity that creates a displaced universe where impossible things become possible.

      “There’s a partnership between the cubism and the ancient,” Gibson says. “Curves, soft lines, togas, and long beautiful fabrics, and then the angularity of the cubism, which is also a metaphor for the angularity of Leontes’s complex, emotional, psychological journey. It’s sharp and it can hurt, but at the same time, if you shift it a different way, the facets become interesting to look at and you understand when you blend them together.”

      Twenty years ago, Gibson himself performed as the Shepherd in Bard on the Beach’s very first production of The Winter’s Tale. Getting to this moment, when he’s directing his own vision of the play, has also been a series of curved lines and sharp turns, but nothing excites him more.

      “I had an idea about a bear,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “I had an idea about pillars and masks and costumes. I had an idea about music. And these people [the crew and the cast] brought it together. It’s so exciting. It’s daunting. Making theatre is not easy. It’s hard. You’ve got to be deeply committed, maybe a little bit off.” He laughs for a moment. “But what else can I do? I love it. I’ve had the gift of longevity so far in my career and opportunities to make theatre. Lucky me.”

      The Winter’s Tale runs until September 22 at Bard on the Beach’s BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park.