Of the many productions cancelled as a result of the pandemic, several have found a new life in another form largely through dedicated online streaming platforms that had a modest take-up before theatre closures but have allowed creatives, directors and producers to share their work with a wider audience in the hope of staging it in the future. But two of the most significant contributors to the saving of ‘lost’ plays are not dedicated arts spaces – Zoom a video calling platform originally designed for quite a different purpose and the BBC. Reithian values and mission aside, television and theatre have been largely estranged for a long time, but during each lockdown a plethora of archived content supplied by arts organisations was given wider prominence before newly commissioned pieces were funded, filmed and shared via the BBC iPlayer, radio channels and (the now under threat) BBC4.
An important outlet then for theatre, opera and dance in the last year, the BBC Lights Up Festival and Culture in Quarantine initiatives have been a treasure trove of lost works – from Ian Rickson’s rich and moving Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter to radio productions of Rockets and Blue Lights, The Meaning of Zong and Shoe Lady, the BBC has thrown a much needed lifeline to staged and developing works. One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) who shared a host of pre-recorded plays for free last summer and now join forces with BBC4 for the world premiere of A Winter’s Tale, a production intended for the 2020 stage and all but lost to theatre history.
Now available on the iPlayer following its evening screening, this version was filmed on the Stratford stage almost as it would have been presented to an audience and has been newly repurposed for television, following in the footsteps of the National Theatre’s equally ‘lost’ Romeo and Juliet that became a Sky Arts film earlier this month, finding itself anew in the cinematic format. The Winter’s Tale is a play that easily bears the change of medium, often finding resonance in other forms, not least a stunning ballet production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2014 which the Royal Opera House streamed last year under its Our House to Your House season of works. Eschewing Shakespeare’s text entirely, it nonetheless boasted a poignant and psychologically complex performance from Principal Edward Watson, arguably one of the finest Leontes in any form.
And The Winter’s Tale is a play that can be transposed to many eras, it’s eternal themes of love, loss, jealousy and redemption tinged with a touch of magic feel well situated in the RSC’s production which enhances its atmosphere of uncertainty by locating the action in the suspicious Cold War era where the nature of alliance and allegiance was sorely tested. Framed against the years 1953 to 1969 (the Coronation of Elizabeth II to the Moon Landing) this is a rich period where the long shadow of the Second World War, of rationing, economic depression and rebuilding collided with a social optimism for change and progress, tearing down some of the rigid social structures and expectations and replacing them with greater choice – or so it seemed on the surface at least.
But underneath this narrative, the consequences of political rancor and betrayal earlier in the century came to fruition which, as A Splinter of Ice so well explores, resulted in the uncovering of a major Russian spy ring with the escape of Burgess and Maclean that led to the hunt for the Third Man whose own defection falls within the period in which the RSC have set their production. That Director Erica Whyman’s story begins against this backdrop of confusion, the world being upended and recent history being rewritten adds much to the climate of distrust in King Leontes’s court although more of this could be more strongly conveyed. Expanding the scope of the play from personal jealousy to a much broader and state-influenced concern about trust and deception in a period where nations like the UK began to question its position and influence on the world stage as the Empire faded away is a valuable starting point. And to conclude at a point where jetting into space felt like a piece of magic, in theory, fits well with the play’s charming conclusion where Queen Hermione fulfills the Pygmalion myth.
The two halves of this story taking place 16 years apart represent those differences as designer Tom Piper creates the elegant but austere court of Sicilia and the concentration-camp-like trial where Queen Hermione’s purity is debated. Combined with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s creeping music, the design is full of the dark shadow of suspicion that hangs over the first 90-minutes of Shakespeare’s text, although there were perhaps even greater opportunities to enhance the watchfulness and duplicity that Leontes expresses with more overt attempts to overhear the conversations between his wife and friend or to have them followed.
But building on the theme, Madeline Gerling’s costume design evolves from 50s cocktail party to authoritarian state quite swiftly as the increasingly enraged Leontes appears in unadorned military garb to demand the death of his Queen despite the guidance issued by the Oracle. Part Two is another world entirely as the audience depart for Polixenes’s Bohemia, a pastoral 60s vision of loose-fit hippie floral dresses and communal easy living which contrasts the formality of its neighbouring land.
Whyman manages the production with the same distinction, running the Sicilian section as a single theatrical piece filmed as-live with scene changes happening within the show as they would in the theatre, rather than use cuts as a movie would. The same occurs in the second half of the play, allowing the Bohemian sequence in Act 4 to transform back into Leontes’s kingdom in Act 5 using stage technology rather than film which gives the actors long periods of performance to build their roles as theatre rather than movie performances which, on the whole, is beneficial to the flow.
Variation is created with a news reel section that foregrounds Hermione’s wonderful declaration of innocence, and with some home movie inserts into the pastoral festival that use a 60s filming style to create era authenticity. But again, the opportunity to directly link to the changing political context of the 1960s and even reference the moon landing described in the production’s publicity never fully transpire and the show starts to drift away from what should be a strong and remarkably relevant period setting for the unfolding drama.
As a hybrid production, none of this is anything like as daring as the National’s Romeo and Juliet nor does it use the playing space as liberally or imaginatively. Yet as a more traditional approach to filming a stage production – of which reflecting its stage origins remains its primary purpose – Whyman’s choices are faithful to the themes and shape of Shakespeare’s play – sometimes that is to its detriment and the problematic fourth Act filled with tangential (and slightly tiresome) comedy performances drags on and on, weighing heavy on the running time.
At two hours and forty-five minutes the show fails to find consistency across the entire piece and while the drama of Leontes’s marriage races by in an hour and a half, the remainder struggles to retain the same tension and investment. A tighter and, in places, a less reverential approach would have added greater pace and jeopardy to proceedings, acknowledging that the demands of story-telling on film require a greater brevity and purpose than a straightforward translation from the stage often allows.
Yet in a play that, to modern eyes at least, rests on the injustices heaped on its women who are suspected, disbelieved, maltreated and exiled without evidence, the central female performances are especially strong. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is superb as Hermione, stately and regal throughout, Jacobs conveys real authority and sincerity in every speech, passionately advocating for her life during her trial in one of this production’s finest moments. Jacobs brings a poise and grace to the role, giving the dialogue such a natural expression that the audience can feel nothing but sympathy for her plight even refusing to believe Leontes deserves any kind of forgiveness or redemption from her at all.
Amanda Hadingue’s Paulina is equally impressive, authoritative and direct with her monarch, unafraid to plead her friend’s cause and show the King his errors in judgement. Persistence and enduring devotion are Paulina’s greatest qualities, and Hadingue portrays a woman who quietly and containedly endures her own grief while proving a commanding presence on stage, allowing her disapproval and rage to show only briefly while working to restore harmony.
This strength in the female characters is given additional might in Whyman’s interpretation of one of the most famous stage directions of all time – ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ – and one of the delights of The Winter’s Tale is seeing how each new staging approaches Shakespeare’s most demanding instruction. Here Whyman and Anna Morrissey channel female fury in the play to create a stomping and clawing women-only movement piece that becomes the bear as Colm Gormley’s Antigonus reacts separately to being pawed and dragged. It’s a smart and intriguing idea that offers something new within the original spirit of the play’s themes.
It’s a shame then that Joseph Kloska’s Leontes comes up wanting, never quite getting to grips with the depth of feeling in either section of the play. At the start, his jealousy is too hysterical, often even shrill, creating an energy level from the start that the character cannot sustain. There needs to be a calm coldness in Leontes too, a King who with barely a flicker orders the poisoning of his friend Polixenes and the murder of his baby daughter before condemning his wife to the same fate, but Kloska plays Leontes as an easily-swayed fool which undermines his supposed gravitas. 16-years later there is just not enough agony in Kloska’s final scenes, nothing of the humbled man who has torn his soul apart in grief and regret or the poignancy of an undeserved second chance. It’s difficult, of course, without being able to build this role over a long run but it rarely gets beneath the surface of a tortured but fascinating character.
Andrew French as Polixenes has greater command despite a much smaller role and Ben Caplan’s conflicted Camillo adds depth with subtle debates about defection between two very different courts and the longing for home that speak to some of the contextual issues that frame the period setting. There is a lot to enjoy in this RSC meets BBC4 production that despite some lags in the play (which are largely Shakespeare’s fault), offers a faithful reading with some contemporary resonance – although this hybrid production leans more heavily towards its origins as a theatre piece that somewhat limits its repurposing as a film. No longer ‘lost’ it joins the many other arts performances that have found a new life on film as the progress of digital theatre continues apace.