By Caldwell Titcomb
“The Winter’s Tale” is one of the glories of our theatrical inheritance. Of Shakespeare’s total output, the Big Four tragedies stand at the head. Then comes “Twelfth Night,” the greatest comedy in our language. Next I would place “The Winter’s Tale” as the finest of the late romances, though most people would rank “The Tempest” higher. The rest of the plays follow along, with the overrated “Romeo and Juliet” near the end.
“The Winter’s Tale” was the vehicle for the fall tour of the troupe called Actors From the London Stage (AFTLS). This project was begun in 1975, and has been thriving ever since, with impressive results. Wellesley College has brought the AFTLS back for the third year in a row (we saw “Hamlet” in 2006 and “Macbeth” last year). The group visits ten or so colleges, conducting workshops and seminars with students, and offering up to three public performances of a Shakespeare play.
Each drama is performed by only five artists (three actors and two actresses) – all experienced and distinguished Shakespeareans from England. That means that each player handles from three to six roles, the shifts indicated by a change of diction or of a scarf, sash or hat. The five remain on stage throughout, sitting in a chair on the sidelines when not speaking. There are no elaborate sets and only minimal props.
Clearly, then, the emphasis is on Shakespeare’s words, and much is left to the audience’s imagination. There is no director, and the quintet spend a month in London collectively working out the blocking and delivery in rehearsal.
Central to the story is King Leontes (Robert Mountford, who was the Horatio and Laertes two years ago), who unjustly accuses his boyhood friend King Polixenes (Matthew Douglas) of fathering a child with his wife Hermione (Erin Brodie). On trial, Hermione simply stands on a black box. At the end she collapses on the ground, and Paulina (Eunice Roberts) gets to stab Leontes with one of the dramatist’s finest lines, “Look down and see what death is doing.” Roberts’ entire extensive denunciation of Leontes is powerful.
Brodie gets to play both Hermione and Hermione’s daughter Perdita, just as Douglas enacts both Polixenes and the latter’s son Florizel, in addition to having fun with the pickpocket Autolycus, who even dances with a woman in the front row of the audience.
The last scene is one of the most moving in all literature, when the statue of Hermione comes to life before a repentant Leontes. Hermione again is standing on a black box but this time with her back to the audience, until she steps down to reunite with Leontes and acquaint herself with her teenage daughter.
William Hoyland brings warmth to lord Camillo. And in fact all five players acquit themselves admirably in their multiple roles. One of course wonders how they will handle Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit pursued by a bear.” Here an actress sports a claw while carried on the shoulders of one of the men.
One can only hope that Wellesley will bring the AFTLS back next year.