Deploying both the Globe’s main stage and its Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this new promenade staging is an imaginative, expertly judged triumph
The Winter’s Tale is often labelled as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays because it mixes tragedy, comedy and romance across its five acts. The disorientation is somewhat warranted.
The first three acts, in Sicily, are a psychodrama full of betrayal, violence and suffering when, on the scant evidence of his “slippery” pregnant wife Hermione’s flirty cordiality to his childhood friend Polixenes, Leontes is suddenly and catastrophically overtaken by a froth of jealous paranoia.
Sixteen years later, we are in a pastoral romantic comedy in Bohemia where Polixenes vociferously objects to his son Florizel’s betrothal to Perdita, Leontes’s presumed dead daughter. Then it’s back to Sicily for a redemptive resolution when Leontes repents.
As Sean Holmes’s ingenious, modern-dress take on it demonstrates, this 400-year-old play is a problem only if you believe that its diverging dramatic modes cannot co-exist in the same play and if you lack the clarity of imagination to stage it afresh. Fortunately, trickiness is a moot point here. In a first for Shakespeare’s Globe, this production is presented in both the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the main open-air auditorium, which is usually closed in winter. This promenade performance is the elegant key, along with the superb casting and judicious compression of the protracted exposition in the first three acts, to making this new version of an old play so cohesive despite its different dramatic emphases.
In the process, it’s also a visionary study in psychogeography. In the intimately gloomy Sam Wanamaker space, representing Sicily, Leontes and his cohort play out their tightly wound patrician repression to composer Laura Moody’s tension-ratcheting scratchy strings. Designer Grace Smart’s tables are the central visual motif that link the stages – a glass-topped one representing everything from the dinner table to a bed in Sicily and, for Bohemia on the open-air main stage, a cobbled-together banquet table that doubles up as a ship.
There are other intelligent nuances of dramatic choices. Excising portions of the original Shakespeare frees up space to insert passages of contemporary English that somehow still sound Shakespearean, mainly in the form Ed Gaughan’s very funny Autolycus, who leads the audience in singing Chas & Dave-style songs and does impressions of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in The Godfather.
The Winter’s Tale contains Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”. Here, it was more like an elegant stalking of Antigonus to his death by a bear in a cool suit. At the end of the play, that attention to costume detail is also echoed in Hermione and Perdita’s identical dresses, underlining their family connection. There is so much more I’d love to say about this thoughtful and very entertaining play, but lack of space means it has to be summed up by: I’m sure Shakespeare would approve.