Exit, pursued by a bear. For many audience members, including myself, this iconic stage direction would have been the only information known regarding the plot of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Truth be told, seeing how The Lyceum’s production would execute such a formidable instruction was my main motivation for reviewing this performance. Surely, the insurmountable pressure resting on these five words bore down on director Max Webster when devising his modern-day adaptation. From the outset, the anticipation for the big reveal is present, with the bear becoming a motif related to the young Mamillius, the tragic victim of his father’s crippling jealously. And yet, despite the obvious references to what was to come, no one could have been prepared for the phenomenal spectacle that was to be displayed at the close of the first act.
More on that later. Having moved the action from Sicilia/Bohemia to Edinburgh/Fife, Webster’s adaptation opens in Leontes’ realm, Edinburgh, with the family celebrating Christmas. The set design is sharp and sleek, as are the players. The Christmas cracker-crowned figures of Leontes, his heavily pregnant wife Hermione and his brother Polixenes, maintain an air of royalty that doesn’t take away from the modern setting.
Such celebrations, however, do not last long. Leontes’ suspicions about Hermione’s fidelity quickly come to head, resulting in a gut-wrenching scene between the King and his wife, as he violently grabs her by her pregnant belly, labelling her a whore as he sends her to prison. Things go from bad to worse as Leontes banishes his newborn daughter, hailing her a bastard, as well as putting his wife on trial. All of this proves too much for the young price, Mamillius, who ends up paying the ultimate price for his father’s unfounded accusations.
Enter the bear. The abandoning of Perdita by Antigonus on Bohemia/Fife’s shores is utterly heart-breaking, and the storm brewing around them both echoes the chaos of the previous scene. John Stahl does a fantastic job in depicting a figure torn between duty and morality: so much so, that his return as The Shepherd in the second half is welcomed following his grizzly demise.
Choosing to have Mamillius return as the bear not only was an ingenious way to tackle the troubling task, but it also added another dimension to the profound theme of loss within the play. Still reeling from the news of his death, and dismayed by the imminent abandonment of his baby sister, Perdita, we as an audience are already somewhat distressed. So, for them to see him reappear as the bear onstage can be described as nothing other than sublime. This, combined with the vast space of the Lyceum’s stage finally revealed to us, as cold winds blow and snow falls from the heavens, creates a visceral experience like no other. Webster’s close is a work of art, a masterpiece that could well have started and ended there, with rapturous applause.
Of course, it didn’t end there. However, in some ways the second half felt like a different play entirely. The change of setting to Fife 16 years later not only gave Webster the opportunity to radically transform the space, but the dialogue as well. By having James Robertson translate the second half into Scots, Webster injected a new wave of energy and excitement into his production. The mix of Scots Shakespeare and ad-libbing creates a diverse and oft-hilarious second half, one that uplifts the audience left dispirited by the tragic events of the first half. It very much succeeds in presenting Bohemia/Fife as the comic relief Shakespeare intended.
That is not to say that Webster’s decisions were flawless. The execution of the first half and presentation of Sicilia/Edinburgh, from the set designs to the music, to the stellar acting between the cast members, are perfect. Unfortunately, compared with such an awe-inspiring first half, Webster’s Fife is left looking like the attempt of an amateur production. Songs about dildos (although admittedly dildos are mentioned in Shakespeare’s original folio), bedazzled shepherds and batman boxer-wearing rogues are hilarious, sure: however, they also threaten to undermine the sophistication and elegance of Leontes’ Sicilia/Edinburgh. While there is certainly reason behind Webster’s polarising depictions of the two kingdoms, it does feel like an injustice to the potential that the first half offers.
Nevertheless, Webster should be applauded for the risks he takes in putting on this production. What Webster leaves us with in the play’s final moments is a scene that leaves the viewer enraptured by the beauty of the production presented before them. Even the glint of The Shepherd’s golden breeks cannot take away from the superb achievement of this Lyceum production.
The Winter’s Tale
Until 4th March 2017