An ‘authentic’ performance in an historically-correct as-we-can-make-it Renaissance theatre could perhaps be a dry, academic affair but I emerged last night from the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse reeling. The visceral drama caused me to question if our contemporary theatre, whether with proscenia or without, with its powerful electric lighting and with all the artifice that modern technology can conjure, is not a waxwork effigy of what REAL drama can be. I’ve emerged confusedly pondering that drama does not depend on faultless sight lines and the most comfortable seats to experience the actors’ art. I had a great seat for Cymbeline in the same space - but I realised then conventional understanding of what a great seat is does not really apply to this space, so I was happy to try a very poor seat this time right up in the gods for The Winter’s Tale.
At first, I was disappointed. I was right at the back on a diagonal to the stage - so I had a seat with a back rest (bench seating otherwise pretty much throughout). I knew the pillar advertised to hamper sight lines was a small slender thing which wouldn’t bother me much but what I hadn’t realised was that the two rows of back-rest-free people sitting in front of me would lean forward. If you are unlucky enough to have a lady with a big hair do in front, that’s half the stage gone, and the pillar takes maybe another 10%. You are up at a very vertiginous rake to the stage, and peering down on top of the actors’ heads through glaring chandeliers. It is surprising just how much light 6 large chandeliers emit - however, even so, its quite dim on stage and even though this is a tiny space and the actors are relatively close you won’t really see their every facial expression very clearly in the golden glow.
However, you will hear even their whispers crystal clear. This space has an amazingly intimate acoustic (all that wood). And although there is a distinct stage area, it feels seamlessly part of the entire space - the audience very much feels physically and emotionally included in the actors’ world. This was particularly true of the trial scene, where Leontes appealed to us as the judges.
Candlelight itself creates an intimate atmosphere which enhances the emotional effect of the performance. This is what weirded me out - I realise our contemporary way of presenting theatre privileges the visual senses of the audience - and in fact bludgeons the eyes by maybe making things too easy to see. The visual restrictions of Renaissance theatre and its candle lighting force one perhaps to use one’s other senses and imagination more and encourage an active emotional participation.
The scene opens in Leontes’ court in Sicilia - as bright as can be, with all the courtiers dressed in white, and with Leontes himself in a gorgeous white doublet with metallic embroidery sparkling in the candlelight. I really admired John Light’s frighteningly rapid descent into psychotic violent jealousy. Rachael Stirling’s graciously statuesque Hermione at first is oblivious to her husband’s suspicions, then is falsely accused and piteously ends up in the trial scene in chains and dirty rags.
By this stage Leontes’s jealous madness has destroyed his entire family: he has broken with his life-long best friend, his son is dead of grief for his mother, Hermione herself has been humiliated in a show trial and has died, and her new-born baby is sent by the king to be exposed in a barren place. All his courtiers fear the king as a tyrant: only the feisty Paulina (brilliantly played by Niamh Cusack) bravely speaks truth to power.
The prison and trial scenes bring the first coups de théâtre. The lights at the opening are all gracious twinkling chandeliers. In the prison scene the chandeliers are all raised high (darkening the stage) and gaolers and prison visitors use braziers and lanterns. The braziers in particular feel rough and crude - visually echoing the King’s madness and the tragic turn of events. Characters are in dark cloaks now, and clever choreography with cloaks and hand-held lanterns throw up stunning effects of light and dark - strongly expressive faces and arms are lit up like a Caravaggio brought to life. Paulina’s and Leontes’ disputes in these scenes are particularly well emphasised.
And then, after the emotional storm of the trial, the chandeliers are all extinguished and the smoking stubs raised swiftly up high - the swinging, eerily smoking chandeliers , together with sound effects, marvellously evoke a storm at sea and on the dangerous coast of Bohemia.
This scene is played in the most complete darkness I have ever experienced in a theatre. We all know what happens next - “exit pursued by a bear” - and this production very nicely extends the tension to its maximum. Antigonus’s wildly swinging lantern is now the only source of light in the entire theatre, and throws careering, pitch black shadows everywhere.
And then after the descent into compete darkness and “the gap of time”, we open up into the light again. Extra chandeliers are lowered onto the shepherds’ festival celebrations, and even a fully blazing fire is carried on stage. Perdita, now fully grown, dances in her dazzling robes and veils with her prince Florizel to the minstrel’s music as if there was no fire hazard. I liked the music, singing and dancing in Bohemia very much: natural and fresh, it is completely organic with the environment and play. Prop’s to Steffan Donnelly’s Florizel - a capering, enthusuastic, slightly immature but very honourable and genial sort of chap. Also one must mention the extraordinary dance of the satyrs. Pagan, oddly disturbing and erotic. The comedic antics of the old shepherd, the clown and Autolycis also lighten the mood and prepare for the reconciliation scene ahead.
John Light pitches Leonte’s remorse just right in the final scene. It’s strange how odd this play reads as text with the king’s rapid emotional reverses but performed well the emotions work perfectly as drama and are believably human. Hermione is restored to us as the gracious queen we saw in Act 1. The play ends, as it opened, with the king kissing the queen.
This is a stunning, fresh and powerful reading of the play in an extraordinary and unique environment. I would urge you to see it if you can get tickets.
The Winter's Tale
Sam Wannamaker Playhouse
Shakespeare's Globe, London
October 2015 - April 2016