The Winter’s Tale
I seem to be alone in feeling great waves of pity for anyone involved in an assault on The Winter’s Tale. This strange dud of a text remains mystifyingly popular with theatre folk. It’s two plays shunted together. Act one is a mawkish palace tragedy, act two is a pastoral operetta with lots of songs and larky rhetoric and a silly happy ending. The play’s central character, Leontes, is a sexual paranoid who accuses his best friend of adultery, slings his pregnant wife in jail and sends their newborn baby into exile. Later he finds out he was mistaken. They’re all innocent. Contrition breaks over him. But just as his jealousy was unconvincing so his remorse is unaffecting. His character is both repugnant and illegible, a miaowing tiger pacing a tiny cage, a cold and tedious tyrant lodged in a prosaic world of domestic conflict. You get pettiness without naturalism and obsession without magnificence.
Simon Russell Beale, a great actor, attempts to crank this burnt-out motor into life in Sam Mendes’s Old Vic production. He fails gallantly. Russell Beale isn’t really suited to Shakespearean heroes, most of whom are warriors or princes, because he has the tragedian’s technique matched with the comedian’s physique. He knows this and his sensible approach to Leontes is to try to soften the monster’s edges with humour and warmth but the script defeats him and the mopy murderer remains as bizarre, cruel and unapproachable as ever.
The details of this production are overpoweringly nice. Edwardian costumes, very stylish. Furniture from Habitat’s heritage range and décor featuring a mass of candles with azure lighting. Gold and blue. As a theatrical colour scheme that’s as daring as Kirstie Allsopp recommending magnolia. What about the second half? Well, after act one of The Winter’s Tale you certainly need some relief. What you don’t need is act two of The Winter’s Tale. I’d rather go to the dentist. Mendes, inspired by the production’s British–American parentage, treats us to the following directorial breakthrough: act one is British and act two is American. How about that? Now then. Act two consists mostly of a party scene. And parties need balloons. And guess what colour the balloons are. The balloons are red, white and blue. Good, isn’t it? The star of the American section, Ethan Hawke, plays Autolycus from the start as if he were returning for an encore after a six-minute ovation. Dressed in an Ozzy Osbourne get-up of top-hat and sunshades, he tosses around energetically enough and at times gives hints that he may have the power to do a proper Shakespearean role if he felt like it. But he makes no effort to neutralise Autolycus’ dominant vice, a luxurious, cocksure slyness, a sense of lazy entitlement that repels, rather than attracts. As always when watching this play I felt dismay, boredom, bewilderment and the wrong sort of pain. With Russell Beale the feeling was particularly acute. It’s not the acting that’s tragic but the waste of acting.
Racine’s Phèdre is a re-write of Euripides’ Hippolytus, and the spirit of 17th-century France lours over this play despite Nicholas Hytner’s modernising touches. Gravity, formality and high-minded bombast predominate. Racine’s stagecraft is tortuously hard work for today’s audience. His idea of repartee is a two-minute speech followed by a three-minute speech followed by a four-minute simile. The play has been cast as if it were Oedipus. Phèdre is the second wife of King Theseus and together they have a son of stink-bomb and whoopee-cushion age. So how old is she? Mid-20s, perhaps. Thirty at most, given that she’s also seized by an uncontrollable crush on Theseus’ grown-up son, Hippolytus. Casting Helen Mirren as this sexual tornado means that the theme of thwarted eroticism comes over in a rather warped key.
There are visual oddities, too. Ancient Greek warriors wear green army fatigues with the trouser-hems tucked into their jackboots like the Serb militia. And Theseus’ palace is a Mediterranean timeshare, painted a brilliant shade of amber and overlooking a perfect Shirley Valentine sky. (Blue and gold again? Hey, it works. Don’t knock it.) Mirren is more than equal to the great slabs of rhetoric and emotion Racine throws at her but this role and this performance are hard to enjoy. We’re used to seeing Mirren’s face in cinematic proximity and hearing her soft, suggestive voice close up. That said, Racine certainly delivers on pity and fear. I feared I’d be bored and I was, piteously. But at the end many in the audience rose and roared.