The Winter’s Tale, presented by the Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York, February 10-March 7, 2009

Joseph M. Ortiz
State University of New York, College at Brockport

Joseph M. Ortiz. "The Winter’s Tale, presented by the Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York, February 10-March 7, 2009.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (January, 2009) 13.1-4 <URL:>.

Directed by Sam Mendes. Set design by Anthony Ward. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Paul Pyant. Hair & Wig design by Tom Watson. Sound by Paul Arditti. Music by Mark Bennett. Music direction by Dan Lipton. Casting by Nancy Piccione and Maggie Lunn. Choreography by Josh Prince. With Simon Russell Beale as Leontes, Rebecca Hall as Hermione, Morven Christie as Mamillius/Perdita, Paul Jesson as Camillo, Dakin Matthews as Antigonus, Sinead Cusack as Paulina, Josh Hamilton as Polixenes, Michael Braun as Florizel, Ethan Hawke as Autolycus, and Richard Easton as Old Shepherd/Time.

  1. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet begins, somewhat infamously, with a voiceover that sums up Hamlet’s dilemma: “This is the tragedy of a man who thought too much.” A similar slogan for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s recent Bridge Project production of The Winter’s Tale might read as: “This is the tragedy of a man who drank too much.” The opening scene of Sam Mendes’ sleek version of the play finds the stage strewn with half-empty glasses and bottles. At one point, even the obviously pregnant Hermione pulls out a large bottle of liquor from behind a couple of sofa cushions (though the audience does not see her drink any of it, thankfully). And, in the next scene, while Leontes is mulling over the suspected infidelity of his wife, he does so at a desk littered with papers and empty whiskey glasses. These details seem purposeful, calling attention as they do to the effects of alcohol on an individual’s ability to distinguish reality from fantasy: at a crucial moment in Act One, Leontes’ speech on “affection” is spoken while Hermione and Polixenes are seen languidly embracing in a sea of purple lighting, blurring the distinction between what is really happening onstage and what may merely be the product of Leontes’ whiskey-addled brain. The overall impression is that Leontes is not simply plagued by epistemological doubt and nihilistic skepticism, but also a man adjusting poorly to middle age.

  2. Audiences similarly inclined to see The Winter’s Tale as a kind of “dysfunctional family” drama would have had plenty of encouragement from this production. The play premiered shortly before the Academy Awards, precisely at the time when Revolutionary Road—Sam Mendes’ other drama of disillusionment in marriage—was receiving a good amount of press attention, in part because it had been snubbed at the Oscars. (Audience members might also have recognized Richard Easton, who played the roles of Old Shepherd and Time, from Mendes’ film.) In addition, the program notes for the BAM production prominently mentioned Mendes’ work on Revolutionary Road, as well as his collaboration on the Bridge Project (a partnership between BAM, the Old Vic Theatre, and Neal Street Productions) with Kevin Spacey, whom Mendes directed to a Best Actor Oscar in American Beauty, his film about suburban frustration. Moreover, while Anthony Ward’s set design was relatively sparse, it efficiently evoked the mundanity of modern domestic life. The boy Mamillius spent much of his time onstage either clutching a teddy bear or drawing colorful pictures with crayons, while a modern chess set sat prominently on a card table in Sicily’s living room. Such details cleverly alluded to the idea of childhood and adult “play,” which Shakespeare’s text purposefully confuses in Act One, but they also helped to imbue the setting with an aura of familiarity.

  3. Certainly, contemporary renditions of The Winter’s Tale are hardly a new thing, especially in New York. In William Burton’s 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale at his theatre in Chambers Street, New York (one of the first American stagings of the play to use a mostly unadulterated version of the Folio text), Hermione appeared a classic Victorian gentlewoman, Bohemia was set amid rustic corn fields, and Autolycus came off as a Wall Street capitalist (Bartholomeusz 101-7). Likewise, in the BAM production, Shakespeare’s Sicily seemed closer to the New York financial district than to Renaissance Italy, an impression reinforced by the fact that Bohemia looked like a Coplandesque vision of Appalachia. Thus, from the perspective of an American audience, Sicily and Bohemia could hardly have been more different. The sheep-shearing festival in Act Four featured a large picnic table straining under the weight of baskets of fruit, harvest vegetables, cherry pies, and—it can hardly have gone unnoticed—big pitchers of lemonade. (Autolycus, played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke as a grungy highway drifter, not surprisingly managed to find the one bottle of beer hidden amid the festival spread.) The satyrs’ dance in the same scene was interpreted as a lively square dance, in which the men at one point suggestively prodded the women with large balloons shaped like monstrous phalluses, giving new (or old) meaning to the Servant’s comment about “delicate burdens of dildoes and fadings” (4.4.193). Yet, this was all presented as good, clean fun. The point seemed to be that an organic diet, very moderate drinking, and a healthy attitude toward sex are the best antidote to pathological jealousy and marital discord.

  4. In general, the implicit psychologizing of the play’s characters in this production worked well, even if one considers—as I do—the inscrutability of Leontes’ “diseased” mind to be one of Shakespeare’s great accomplishments. If there was a casualty of this realist approach to the play, it was in the last scene, which lacked much of the mystery and otherworldliness I have seen in other productions. When Paulina warned Leontes to “forbear” touching the statue of Hermione lest he “mar it if [he] kiss it” (5.3.80-82), a knowing murmur rippled through the audience; clearly, this audience had been led not to expect magical statues or strange metamorphoses, especially after having seen a very real-looking (and atypically unfunny) bear in Act Three. This readiness on the audience’s part to assume a “real” Hermione in hiding for sixteen years was notable, especially since Leontes’ lines on the statue’s aged appearance—“Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So aged as this seems” (5.3.28-29)—were cut from performance. Usually, these lines convince my most skeptical students that Paulina’s animation of the statue is simply a ruse. The expurgation of these lines from this production was inexplicable, except for the fact that Hermione did not look aged from the first half of the play. In fact, while Simon Russell Beale was noticeably more grizzled, if wiser, by the end of the play, the difference in age between Leontes and Hermione could hardly have been more apparent. From the start of the play, Beale’s Leontes already looked considerably older than Rebecca Hall’s Hermione, adding some unintentional irony to Polixenes’ statement that Leontes was only a “young playfellow” (1.2.82) when he met Hermione. Whether or not this age discrepancy was intentional, it provoked some interesting questions. Does Leontes merely remember himself as a boy absent Hermione? Or are we seeing Hermione through his eyes—always as a young woman? Or, perhaps, the mystical element at the end of the play has little to do with metamorphic statues: instead, we are left with the vision of a young, beautiful woman and a much older, wizened man whom we are asked to believe are past all problems of marital jealousy and sexual insecurity. Awake your faith, indeed.

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© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).