The Winter’s Tale brings exquisite magic to Bard on the Beach stage
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. A Bard on the Beach production. At the BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park on Thursday, June 22. Continues until September 22
A sad tale’s best for winter indeed, but this exquisite production is cause for celebration.
The Winter’s Tale, considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, is an odd mix of tragedy, comedy, and romance that plays fast and loose with dramatic unities. The first half of the play takes place in Sicilia, where King Leontes imprisons his pregnant wife, Hermione, suspecting her of an affair with his good friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. In prison, Hermione gives birth to a daughter whom Leontes banishes, and though the Delphic oracle eventually declares Hermione’s innocence, she dies soon after. The baby girl, meanwhile, is taken to Bohemia and found by a shepherd and his son—but the oracle has decreed that Leontes will have no heir until she is restored to him.
The action then fastforwards 16 years to Bohemia, where the grown daughter, Perdita, has caught the eye of Florizel, Polixenes’s son and heir. A scamming thief, Autolycus, targets Perdita’s adoptive family, crashing their sheep-shearing revels. Another uninvited guest is Polixenes, furious that his son has deceived him. When Florizel and Perdita escape to Sicilia, they find a chastened Leontes—and the oracle’s prophecy is fulfilled when not only Perdita, but also Hermione, are restored to him.
One key character I haven’t mentioned is the noblewoman Paulina, Hermione’s staunchest defender, the boldest challenger of Leontes’s injustice, and a woman with access to powerful magic. In this play, it’s the magic of storytelling, and director Dean Paul Gibson rearranges Shakespeare’s text to make his Paulina a kind of female Prospero: she may not be controlling the events, but she’s definitely in charge of their telling.
“Resolve yourselves for amazement,” exhorts Paulina at the top of the play, standing front and centre of the entire company. There’s a brief dance, and then the masked chorus moves upstage to watch intently, reacting with laughter or whispers, while Leontes and Polixenes engage in friendly argument. Exquisitely choreographed, it’s an arresting opening.
Lois Anderson’s Paulina is by turns chiding, outraged, tender, but always in command, and the strength of her performance is matched by the other leads. Kevin MacDonald makes every station on Leontes’s enormous emotional journey crystal clear, and Sereana Malani’s steadfast and quietly poised Hermione is deeply moving. In Bohemia, Ben Elliott is deliciously unhinged as Autolycus, using his considerable physical and musical resources to reinvent the character in every moment.
The production gets maximum impact from Pam Johnson’s minimalist set, a mostly bare stage on which five enormous columns are repeatedly reconfigured. Gerald King’s sumptuous, colour-saturated lighting and Malcolm Dow’s music heighten the emotions. Choreographer Tracey Power creates both solemnity and, in a long sequence of songs during the Bohemian revels, frivolity. Carmen Alatorre’s costumes differentiate the worlds and moods of Sicilia and Bohemia, but her cubist masks often suggest choral figures, underscoring the central theme of story and witness.
Now that summer is finally here, don’t let its distractions keep you away from The Winter’s Tale. This is Bard at its best.