Winter's Tale and Cherry Orchard bring Bridge Project to London

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A CurtainUp Review
The Winter's Tale
The Winterís Tale transfers to Londonís Old Vic

The second play in Sam Mendesí Bridge Project, twinning plays and actors across the Atlantic, The Winterís Tale, arrives in its penultimate destination before moving on to Athens in August for the planned final performances. Now in 2002 Mendes was the darling of London theatre when his swansong to his artistic directorship at the Donmar was a Chekhov and a Shakespeare: Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, productions that are unlikely to be bettered in my lifetime. Memorable too was that Sam Mendes met his wife Kate Winslet when she auditioned to play the female leads, but her film career clashed with staging plans when the two plays in London and at BAM were delayed.

I have trouble linking these latest two plays thematically. The motto written on the wall speaks of time and regret, "O call back yesterday, Let this return.", but the diversionary activity that led me to compare and contrast Twelfth Night and Vanya does not take flight. In The Winterís Tale: Who compares with the selfish and backward looking Ranevskaya? Who is the new order represented by Lopakhin? Having seen both The Cherry Orchard and The Winterís Tale at The Old Vic I was disappointed, but less so by the Shakespeare.

Simon Russell Beale is a rather benign Leontes. A Leontes, (and here I concur with Paulanne Simmons who reviewed The Winterís Tale in New York see below) who is not unreasonably, insanely jealous does not make a lot of sense. Rebecca Hallís young and pregnant Hermione reclines on cushions with Josh Hamiltonís excellent Polixines, letting their hands mirror each other in a classic flirtatious gesture. Leontes seems right to be concerned at his wifeís behaviour. Could the Delphic Oracle be wrong or could have the message have been intercepted and changed? (see Hamlet)

In this year when we are celebrating 500 years since the accession to the throne of the Tudor King Henry VIII, the father of the monarch for most of Shakespeareís life, Queen Elizabeth I, we remember kings casting off their wives. Henry VIII famously had six wives. However we know that The Winterís Tale was based on Richard Greeneís 1588 story of Pandosto, a king of Bohemia who falls in love with his daughter, without knowing it is his daughter, and his queen who kills herself after grief at the death of her son. This story will resonate with those of us who studied Chaucerís The Clerkís Tale, where the gentle Griselda is sorely tested by her husband Walter. The Lord Walter turns out his wife back to her pigsty, she was lowly born, takes her children away and calls his wife back to wait on his new bride, who is her daughter. Griselda does all this without complaint. More fool her, I say. Given that Shakespeare also wrote The Taming of the Shrew and Allís Well That Ends Well we cannot expect women to have rights in Shakespeareís body of work.

The Sicilian scenes work well but even Ethan Hawkeís diverting Johnny Depp inspired Autolycus cannot lift the yokel muddle that is Bohemia. The lewd bucolic balloon dance is vulgar and embarrassing. I canít help feeling the Coen Brothers would have done it better. When Camillo (Paul Jesson) says of Perdita (Morven Christie), "Godsooth she is the queen of curds and cream" he is alluding to her obvious breeding which distances her from the country folk. Not something which came out in Morven Christieís performance. I did like the large Grisly bear which sees off Antigonus (Dakin Matthews) and Sinead Cusackís spirited Paulina.

Back to Sicily for the final scene which is very moving as Simon Russell Bealeís sad, sad Leontes says remorsefully "She I killed!" and the impressive Rebecca Hall stands as still as any Hermione statue before being sweetly reunited with her husband and daughter.

We heard that Stephen Dillane was to recreate Hamlet and The Tempest for the Bridge Project before family affairs interfered with these plans. I am sure that much has been learnt this year and next two year will see The Bridge Project strengthen.

Cast and credits as below
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 15 August 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 11th June 2009 performance at The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
The review during the BAM run by Paulanne Simmons

Good queen, my lord/Good queen; I say good queen/And would by combat make her good, so were I/A man, the worst about you..—Paulina
The Winter's Tale
Simon Russell Beale in The Winter's Tale
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare gives Bohemia a coastline, has a queen resurrected and turns a tragedy into a comedy. All this is something of an achievement, even for the great Bard. Not many critics consider the play among Shakespeare's best work. However, many excellent companies have chosen it for production, often with quite respectable results. In 1951, Peter Brook staged the play in London with John Gielgud as Leontes. In 1980, David Jones launched his new theater company at Brooklyn Academy of Music with The Winter's Tale.

Once again the play is with us, this time at BAM, staged by The Bridge Project and directed by the legendary Sam Mendes. Although this production does not solve the problems of Shakespeare's incredible leaps of time, place and style, it does make each part pulse with vitality. The production's success in the first three acts is mostly thanks to Simon Russell Beale's nuanced and totally plausible portrayal of the tortured Leontes, in the last two acts, in great part to the comic acting of Ethan Hawke as the rogue Autolycus, and Richard Easton and Tobias Segal as the old shepherd and his son, respectively.

Anthony Ward's two sets — the one for the royal court of Sicilia austere and candlelit, the one for the sheep shearing festival in Bohemia filled with earth tones and joyous red, white and blue balloons— emphasize the play's light and dark themes. But what, one may well ask, ties this play together? It opens in Sicilia where King Leontes, for the slightest of reasons, becomes convinced that his wife, Hermione (Rebecca Hall) is having an affair with his good friend and guest Polixenes (Josh Hamilton) and is carrying his rival's baby. Leontes imprisons his wife, and despite the pleas of her faithful servant Paulina (the excellent Sinead Cusack), forces Paulina's husband, Antigonus (Dakin Matthews), to take the baby outside the kingdom and leave it to die a victim of the elements.

Things go from bad to worse. Leontes' faithful servant, Camillo (Paul Jesson) flees; his wife and son die; Antigonus is killed by a bear. Then Time (Richard Easton) announces that sixteen years have passed and the play moves to Sicilia where Polixenes' young son Florizel (Michael Braun) is courting a young shepherdess named Perdita (secretly the abandoned daughter of Leontes and Hermione) against the will of his wrathful father. Thanks to the intercession of Camillo, who has now become Polixenes trusted advisor, and the sly assistance of Autolycus, who directs the shepherd and his son (who know the truth) to Sicilia, lovers are united, the dead queen is brought back to life and even Paulina is given a new husband to replace Antigonus.

Certainly all parts of this rambling play deal somehow with true love and fidelity. The play cautions against kings (both Leontes and Polixenes) who act rashly and autocratically. It praises women (like Hermione and Paulina) who are gracious yet defiant when men act unjustly. And it insists that even the most misguided can learn through experience and achieve redemption.

For the most part The Bridge Project production is true to these themes while doing full justice to the comic scenes (mostly created by making fun of the lower class) that abound in the second half of the play. The one stumble Mendes makes may be in the first scene, when he has Polixenes and Hermione behave in a way that would arouse the suspicious of even the most trusting husband.

The point of The Winter's Tale is precisely that Leontes has no grounds for his accusations. Why does Mendes toy with the idea that maybe he does? Certainly Hermione's behavior after her arrest does not indicate that she is a woman of easy virtue of flexible principles. Perhaps Mendes meant to show the audience Hermione and Polixenes' behavior as seen through Leontes' eyes? If so, he should have made such a decision clearer to the audience.

Despite this minor flaw, the superb transatlantic cast and masterful direction certainly make this a Winter's Tale that can light up a cold winter's night. . . or afternoon.

For our review of the Bridge Project's repertory partner, see The Cherry Orchard.

The Winter's Tale
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes
Cast: Simon Russell Beale (Leontes), Rebecca Hall (Hermione), Morven Christie (Mamillius), Paul Jesson (Camillo), Dakin Matthews (Antigonus), Sinead Cusack (Paulina), Josh Hamilton (Polixenes), Michael Braun (Florizel), Morven Christie (Perdita), Richard Easton (Old Shepherd), Tobias Segal (Young Shepherd), Ethan Hawke (Autolycus), Richard Easton (Time)
Set Design: Anthony Ward
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Music: Mark Bennett
Music Direction: Dan Lipton
Choreography: Josh Prince
Running Time: 3 hours, one intermission
The Bridge Project collaboration between BAM & the Old Vic at BAM Harvey Theater 651 Fulton St.718.636.4100 or
From 2/10/09; opening 2/20/09; closing 3/08/09
Tickets: Subscription tickets- $24, 48, 72 (Full price: $30, 60, 90)
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 22, 2009
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