25/7/09, Old Vic
3hrs. Simon Russell Beale as Leontes, Rebecca Hall as Hermione, Ethan Hawke as Autolycus. Sam Mendes directed. Part of the "The Bridge", a scheme to mount six productions with a single company of British and American actors on Broadway, on tour and at the Vic. This first effort plays in rep with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which we aren't planning to see.
Simon Russell Beale as ever mesmerising. What that man can do with a silence! There's a moment in the latter part of this play where he sees his daughter Perdita for the first time since she was abandoned as a newborn. He doesn't know it's her. He says nothing but simply looks at her, and manages somehow to convey recognition, astonishment, doubt, love, disbelief, guilt... The production was worth seeing for that moment alone. It brought tears to the eyes. And of course he speaks the verse, including some of Shakespeare's thorniest constructions, as if new-minted dialogue, excavating the meaning (not perhaps always what Shakespeare intended, but none the worse for that) and making it crystal clear.
Hawke played Autolycus as an itinerant country and western ballad singer with guitar. It worked surprisingly well: the shepherds' harvest feast became a hoe-down. He made the characters' nonsense songs sound plausible. And there were some funny jokes. The costumes placed the production at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; the Americans played the Bohemians, the Brits the Sicilians.
Rebecca Hall was unconvincing as Hermione (too young, frankly), Sinead Cusack was brilliant as Paulina, the older woman who reads Leontes the riot act over his treatment of his wife and then squirrels the supposedly dead Hermione away for 16 years until revealing her as a statue on the occasion of her daughter's return. Which has to be almost as unlikely a plot development as the murder of the courtier who abandons the infant Perdita, only to be torn limb from limb by a bear. The bear was well-handled: there was the inevitable laugh, but the creature was scary enough -- a man in a bear costume prowling menacingly in the half-dark. In the end there was no "Exit, pursued by a bear", just a slash of lightning, the bear rears up, then blackout. But why, one wonders, did Shakespeare specify a bear? Scary, sure. You only had to pop down the road to the bear-baiting to see how scary. But a trifle too exotic? Perhaps someone had given the company a bear skin and they were looking for some way to use it.
The statue coming to life was handled well. Hermione stood on a dais downstage with her back to the audience, the other characters in a semi-circle facing her (and us). When she came to life it was as though she were waking from a trance.
The Vic stage had been remodelled, with a forestage (lower than the main stage) in front of the proscenium and a sloping playing area linking main and fore stages.
Clever lighting. There was much use of bright white spotlights (though more diffuse than a conventional follow spot), which illuminated characters during soliloquies (it might have been over the top but actually worked fine); great geometrical slabs of light on the floor at certain points like the opening of the final section, when Leontes and friends sit disconsolate in a great cathedral-like space conjured up by lighting alone; and when Hermione reanimated the gloom lifted... on Perdita before the others.
The play remains fundamentally implausible. Apart from the bear and the statue, Leontes' jealousy at the start is simply a given: there's no Othello-like development or explanation for his condition. His emotions seem irrational -- though his brother Polixenes' fury when he sees his son proposing to Perdita seems equally over the top and implies that irrational mood swings may be a family failing.
It's a play that shows the fragility of the things we love and depend on -- even if, in this romance, they are (mostly) restored.