The cast of a particularly sunny version of The Winter’s Tale, onstage at the High Park Amphitheatre. Photo by Chris Gallow.
Kicking off a summertime staple, Canadian Stage‘s Dream in High Park production this year, The Winter’s Tale, is a choice that invites as much interpretation as the stage directions “Exit, pursued by a bear” (for which the play is best known). Looking past its off-season title, the play is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and less often–produced works, and it’s a far cry from the typical audience-drawing fare like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet or even Othello. Its subject matter—simultaneously comedic and tragic and absurd—can be difficult to digest for those unfamiliar with the script.
The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, or sometimes it’s considered a romance. But in our opinion, it’s best described as if the three aforementioned Shakespearian shows (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello) mated and produced a little baby script. We begin in Sicilia, with a happy King Leontes and his beloved and pregnant wife, Hermione, who are celebrating the visit of good friend and king of Bohemia, Polixenes. But before you can say “Please pass the goblet,” Leontes is consumed by an unfounded conviction that Hermione has been having an affair with Polixenes, who subsequently flees from Leontes’ jealous tirade. Hermione, though, is not as lucky. In a matter of minutes she is imprisoned, causing her young son to die of grief, which triggers an early birth and Hermione passes away herself. The baby girl, Perdita, is saved and sent away to live with shepherds in Bohemia. Laughing yet?
In Bohemia we see an entirely different scene. The stark white and black silks of Sicilia are swapped for the whismy of bright and colourful flowers of the country’s harvest celebrations. Perdita is now a beautiful 16-year-old who has won the heart of Polixenes’ only son, Florizel. After some music, dancing, and some dildo jokes from Perdita’s shepherd family, Polixenes discovers their cross-caste relationship, and the two lovebirds flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes. In front of the heartbroken and regretful Leontes, Perdita’s identity is discovered, she and Florizel are free to wed, and Leontes and Polixenes settle their feud—a typical comedic ending. Then comes the absurd. Paulina, Hermione’s loyal friend, reveals a statue of the deceased queen, which then comes to life. All rejoice. The end.
The reason we’re explaining the plot so thoroughly is to properly explain how the production, despite having mostly strong performances and creative design and sound elements, ended up leaving a mixed impression. Director Estelle Shook presents straightforward performances from her actors: most notably, David Jansen is a cutting, mean, and spiteful King Leontes in the first act, even if some of his insults draw laughs at their obscenity. Kelly McIntosh is a devastated and confused Hermione. And John Blackwood is a dastardly clever swindler, Autolycus, who delivers note after note of comedic relief on his guitar in Bohemia. The performances are impressive, but their delivery highlights the dichotomy of humour and tragedy of the script. So enjoyment depends on whether or not the audience is okay with the rollercoaster events of the play.
A bold choice in script, Shook’s production is in keeping with Canadian Stage’s alternative artistic direction under Matthew Jocelyn, and also with the company’s new emphasis on design and conceptual elements. In The Winter’s Tale there are a number of visuals that stand out—the ghost of Hermione in a cloak that falls from the stage’s balcony to the floor, the bright festival scene in Bohemia in contrast with the severity of Sicilia, and an unsuspected interpretation of the ever-famous bear (the cast begins the play by carrying a bearskin rug onto the stage—the tragedy unfolds on top of it—and a bare-chested Thomas Olajide’s bear costume mimics the rug and appears as a mix of polar bear and caveman). Sound is also key to this production; it emphasizes the despair of Sicilia in the first act and the fun and frivolity of Bohemia in the second. However, the slow drumbeat and sound effects of the baby crying were a little distracting and, frankly, overkill, and the shepherd’s playful songs were entertaining but added little to the plot or thematic meaning.
As the son of Hermione and Leontes says before his untimely death: “A sad tale’s best for winter.” Luckily, The Winter’s Tale isn’t a sad tale—it’s just not typical–summer theatre material. However, it marks a bold new direction for Canadian Stage and, for some audiences, it might be the refreshment they need on humid summer nights.