The term "problem plays" was coined in 1896 by F. S. Boas for his academic tome, Shakespeare and His Predecessors. Considering that the works about which Boas was writing were written in the earliest 1600s, the appellation is relatively recent. Boas was getting at the difficulty with which modern or "modern" audiences understand character behavior in the specific late dramas, comedies and romances -- psychological mentalities and cultural sensibilities having slowly altered since then.
But it's interesting about problems. One person's problem can be another's quick solution, which brings me to the Royal Shakespeare Company's version of The Winter's Tale, currently on view during Lincoln Center Festival 2011 at the Park Avenue Armory as a co-production with Lincoln Center.
The supposed problem nagging at this opus is the ranting from Leontes, King of Sicily, who sets the play in motion when, apparently out of the blue, he's seethingly jealous of his faithful wife's friendship with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. In most productions the zero-to-sixty-miles-per-hour fury is an obstacle most actors and directors have a helluva time hurdling -- often never making the leap no matter how smoothly the rest of the play runs.
The first time Leontes unleashes anger at his pal's agreeing to extend a state visit after being importuned by the queen -- at her husband's unrelenting insistence -- he says, "Too hot, too hot!" in a heated aside. At this, the audience is often prompted to wonder what brought that on. Not here. Playing Leontes under David Farr's insightful guidance, Greg Hicks instantly signals that his King's outburst comes after days, months, maybe even years of harboring an ugly suspicion about his spouse and long-time pal. His cry is the sign of something festering internally over a long period suddenly exploding to the surface.
I can't say how Hicks makes Leontes's simmering ire so transparent. It's Hicks's secret, and asking an actor to divulge his secret is every bit as rude as asking a master chef for the elusive ingredient in his most renowned recipe. Hicks works his thespian's magic and follows up the initial reaction with all sorts of paradoxically blatant subtleties. You can even sense the gears turning in his sleek skull as he reckons how to use his young son Mamillius (played well by Sebastian Salisbury at the performance I saw) as a pawn in the destructive chess game he's about to play with his wife and nearby subjects.
In short, Hicks is the best Leontes I've ever seen. The brilliance of his performance -- of his finding a way to make Leontes immediately accessible to a contemporary audience -- suggests that maybe The Winter's Tale isn't such a problem after all but is that much more the welcome sprig of redemption and rebirth that it's always been.
This isn't to say that -- as Leontes occasions the deaths of his beloved son and denigrated wife and sends his loyal courtiers to the safety of rural Bohemia -- Farr and set-and-costume designer Jon Bausor don't create a troubling new problem of their own to throw the material off balance. And the result has nothing to do with the handling of the great "Exit, pursued by bear" stage direction, which is beautifully realized by puppetry director Steve Tiplady.
Shakespeare had it in mind to contrast the literal and figurative winter of Leontes' discontent with the literal and figurative spring promise of Bohemia. Bohemia is where the baby born just before Hermione (Kelly Hunter) dies has been raised. Now she's carefree 16-year-old Perdita (Samantha Young), in love with Polixenes's son Florizel (Tunji Kasim). Bohemia is also where rustics like amusing conman Autolycus (Brian Doherty) romp.
Nothing's wrong with the way the actors play their roles in Bohemia -- or in the last act, when many of the opus's agitated populace go back to Sicily for Hermione's unexpected return. (Return to life? If you don't know the play, find out for yourself.) All hands are commendable, and a couple much more than that -- Darrell D'Silva as an upright Polixenes, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione's wise and steadfast protector Paulina with a suffer-no-fools mouth on her and John Mackay as one of Leontes's more stalwart attendants.
No, it's what happens to the Bausor set that undermines, at least for a crucial while, the Bard's intentions. The opening acts, placed for this mounting in Edwardian England, occur in a dignified dining-room, the main features of which are two tall, filled-to-bursting bookshelves positioned at a 45-degree angle to each other with a door separating them. When Leontes has wrongly humiliated his wife and then learns, at his wife's and son's demise, that he's mistaken, both bookshelves tilt forward, noisily spilling their dusty contents. Apart from some slight rearranging, the untidy evidence of humanity's intellectual chaos remains where it is throughout the Bohemia scenes.
The implication is that Bohemia in spring isn't a much sunnier environ that Sicily in winter. It's one thing for directors and designers to give free rein to their interpretations but not when they are at such brash odds with the playwright's. Shakespeare unquestionably wanted a clear difference between two actual and symbolic climes. Early in the text, Mamillius says with sagacity beyond his years, "A sad tale's best for winter." That remark alone dictates there be no overlap between seasonal attributes. Its being imposed here hobbles the production.
Luckily, Hick's dismissal of the "problem" aspect of the romance with his perceptive performing is so cracker jack that nothing anyone else might do can detract from this Winter's Tale's memorable triumph.
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