Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

Eleanor McLoughlin, Chris Gordon. Copyright Johan Persson.jpg

In Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Declan Donnellan, the operation of time is given thematic pride of place. In fact, Time herself (Grace Andrews) frames the action of the story. From the opening of the house and the commencement of the play, to the transition to the pastoral world of Bohemia, to the play’s closing moments in Paulina’s “gallery,” Time guides this Tale’s major turnings. The production’s choice to highlight Time’s involvement in human events beyond what is explicitly provided in Shakespeare’s text makes perfect sense when The Winter’s Tale is considered in its generic context, as part of the body of Shakespeare’s late romances, or tragicomedies. Many of the genre’s defining features—namely the flouting of the classical unities—may be seen as directly related to its fascination with time and to its overlapping interests in movement, transformation, and the sudden, unexpected revelations brought about by time’s passage. Indeed, the sheer pleasure of a romance like The Winter’s Tale is due, in large part, to the interconnected work of these very elements, in their ability to generate the wonder excited by what Sir William Davenant referred to as “the plot’s swift change and counterturn.”

While some elements of Donnellan’s production (such as the aforementioned pervasive presence of Time, the modality of the sparse
set pieces, and the fluid use of projections) cleverly uphold romance’s interest in change of all sorts, the work of these same elements is often undercut in a production that also features choices far more static.
While Mamillius (Tom Cawte) indeed declares that “a sad tale’s best for winter,” the set design by Nick Ormerod is unchangingly cold (2.1.25). The house opens to a dark, nearly bare stage, an almost void-like space that resists any ascription of time or place. The lights (designed by Judith Greenwood) then come up at the commencement of Act I where we are introduced to Leontes’ (Orlando James) Sicilian court, but the light is harsh, largely cool, and somehow just as alienating as the darkness. The members of the court, moreover, are attired by Ormerod in black, white, and shades of grey, and in styles as resistant to any particular periodization as the set. Such stark choices might have been more effective for the disturbed Sicilian kingdom if they had been met with a marked transition into the Bohemian pastoral world. Bohemia, though, is just as harsh as Sicilia. In this production, Bohemia is dark and rain-drenched from the requisite shipwreck that lands baby Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) on the coast all the way through the sheep shearing festival sixteen years later. The drab (gray palette) costumes of the first half of the play are matched by the similarly drab (brown palette) overcoats, wellies, and stocking caps featured at the festival. As the cold downpour continues in the dark outside the festival space, the only real visual hint at the regeneration traditionally signaled by the move to the pastoral world is found in Perdita’s flowers (which now seem strangely incongruous).

But it is also the alterations to play text itself that deprive the last two Acts of much of their warmth and downplay their investment in the power of restorative change. One of the most obvious examples is the short, comedic altercation between Mopsa (Joy Richardson) and Dorcas (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) at the festival that, here, is exploded into an overly long, Jerry Springer-esque showdown complete with catfight between scantily-clad, sequined combatants and audience participation. While this is certainly a fresh, modernized rendition of this moment, the trashy daytime talk show interpretation undercuts the earnestness of the country festival that functions in the text as another one of the romance’s celebrations of renewal and which, ultimately, points us forward to the play’s maybe-miraculous revivification of the Sicilian queen (also Natalie Radmall-Quirke). Other examples include the brutal groping of Perdita by the disguised Polixenes (Edward Sayer), the downplaying of Leontes’ penitence prior to the courtiers’ trip into Paulina’s “gallery,” and the trimming of the play’s final social resolutions to exclude the pairing of the faithful servant Camillo (Abubakar Salim) with the widowed Paulina (also Joy Richardson). The final moments of the play feature little Mamillius’s ghost walking the stage, sensed by a freshly anguished Leontes.

At least for this viewer, the sum of these edgy choices lends the impression that perhaps nothing much has really changed in Sicilia (or anywhere or anytime else). Certainly, they only add to the residual ambiguity that Shakespeare himself invites us to grapple with at the story’s end: the drama is indebted to fairy tale and myth, but what should be a happy ending is tinged with sorrow. The young Mamillius remains dead. Leontes’ family is not quite whole. The fairy tale is ruined. But romance isn’t just a fairy tale—is also the literary heir to the Gospel narratives and to the late medieval miracle and mystery plays still familiar to Shakespeare and his original audiences. For these stories, as in The Winter’s Tale, time, mistakes, death and sorrow are painfully real. But they are not allowed to have the final word. It is the warm and hopeful counterturn, the growing through such pain, that this Winter’s Tale seems to lack.


Stephanie Kucsera  is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in early modern drama with a focus in inter-religious encounter and constructions of  English nationhood. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago, an inter-disciplinary MA from the University of Chicago, and her BA in theatre and English literature from the University of Indianapolis.

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

07_Guy Hughes, Orlando James, Joseph Black, Chris Gordon. Photo Johan Persson_CROP.jpg

I saw the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale on December 20, the longest night of the year, and it haunted me well into the dark hours of the early morning. It’s a play I’ve seen often before, including memorable productions at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002-2003 and 1994-1995. But Declan Donnellan’s stunning, sometimes even shocking, direction made me see things in it I never saw before—which often happens in a really good production of a familiar Shakespeare play.[1] The central plot is simple enough:

Jealous King Leontes accuses his innocent (and pregnant) wife Hermione of cuckolding him with his childhood friend Polixenes; he has her imprisoned, where she bears the child and dies. Leontes sends the newborn girl off to be killed by exposure. When their young son Mamillius sickens and dies, grieving for his mother, Leontes realizes his error and is overcome by self-loathing.

But, in fact, the newborn girl does not die; she is found by a shepherd, who raises her as his own daughter. Fifteen years later she meets and falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel. When the young couple appears in Leontes’ court, it transpires that Hermione, too, did not die after all, but merely went into hiding. She emerges now, and they all live happily ever after.

Ah, but do they really? The term “winter’s tale” signifies the coziness of sitting around a fire but also the coziness of a familiar and implausible fairytale. The Winter’s Tale makes fun of its own implausibility, as when the long lost daughter—whose lostness is so basic to her that she is named Perdita—has been found, and people in Leontes’ court keep saying things like, “This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (5.2.28-30). And when Hermione, long thought to be dead, is found to be alive, they say, “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale: but it appears she lives” (5.3.115—227).

When Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell them a story, he remarks, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.25), and this is, all told, a sad tale, despite the unbelievable happy end. An inspired touch in this production illumi­nated the sadness for me, a haunting moment at the end when, as all the couples are assembled (Hermione and Leontes, Perdita and Florizel, and others in subplots I haven’t space to tell you about), and they all hug together in one big collage of bodies, and freeze in a stop-frame, the happy ending seems glued in place. But then the dead boy, Mamillius (or rather, presumably, his ghost), wanders soundlessly on stage and walks to the petrified group of happy enders and sadly walks away, reminding us that even a happy ending has a tragic edge in a late Shakespearean romance—the dead child, who does not come back to life as Hermione and Perdita seem to do, not to mention the tragedy of the fifteen years of lonely misery for both Hermione and Leontes.

A more pervasive innovation in this production offers the answer to a question about this play that has haunted me for years: Why is Leontes so unreasonably jealous? Unlike Othello, Leontes has no Iago to blame; he does it all by himself. But under Declan Donnellan’s powerful direction, the actor Orlando James, a brilliant Leontes, is constantly in motion. His frenetic agitation reveals a man about to explode, a man overpowered by his own physicality. His boyish roughhousing with Polixenes, and with Mamillius, and eventually, most inappropriately, with his extremely pregnant wife finally explodes into mad rage, as he throws her down and kicks her pregnant belly, bringing on the premature birth of Perdita. His violence is also obscene. His overheated sexual imagination is brilliantly illuminated, in this production, during his anguished soliloquy about his sexual jealousy. As Hermione and Polixenes freeze like statues, Leontes moves them into the positions of a copulating couple, making his imagined fears come vividly alive for him, and for us. “Your actions are my dreams” (3.2.82), he says to Hermione.

Polixenes, too, is well played by Edward Sayer with that same excess of energy, both violent and sexual. These qualities come out when he attacks his son Florizel for falling in love with the low-born (as they think) shepherd girl Perdita. Shakespeare gives Polixenes sharp words—he threatens to have Perdita’s face scratched with briars to destroy her beauty, and to devise a “cruel death” for her if ever she might open ”these rural latches” to Florizel’s entrance. But Donnellan has Polixenes accompany this sadistic sentiment with an equally sadistic action, brutally groping her between her legs. At this moment I realized, for the first time, why Leontes and Polixenes were indeed such boyhood pals—they are two of a kind, which is why it is Polixenes who stirs Leontes’ jealousy. This double dose of pent-up violence and sexuality is what this play has in place of a Iago. The jealousy is all the more appalling because it comes from within Leontes, whom we come to view not as a particularly twisted individual but as a member of a male world that nourishes sexuality and violence in boys from their very childhood. And the pent-up negative energy of the two men is enhanced by the extraordinary choreography of this production where, unlike most stage presentations in which everyone stands still whenever the main characters are speaking, here everyone seems to be in perpetual motion, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, like matter itself, expressing in the ensemble the inner restlessness of the two central male characters. Moments like that change one’s understanding of a great play forever after.

[i] Woody Allen (in “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Side Effects [New York, 1975]) once satirized the way that we experience the same classic differently at different times, in a short story about a Jewish businessman from New York who got into Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and had an affair with Emma Bovary at the Plaza Hotel in New York, so that anyone who read the book at that time read about the businessman and the Plaza Hotel. A Stanford professor, encountering this new character and new episode, explained to his class, “Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She earned her BA at Radcliffe College, her PhD from Harvard University, and a DPhil from Oxford University. She is the author of over forty books, most recently The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (2005), The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), On Hinduism (2013) and Hinduism in the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2015).