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Reviewed by:
  • The Winter's Tale
  • Hopkins Justin B.

Presented by Cheek by Jowl, in the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City. December 6–10, 2016. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Designed by Nick Ormerod. Lighting design by Judith Green-wood. Music and sound design by Paddy Cunneen. With Grace Andrews (Emilia/Time), Joseph Black (Cleomenes), David Carr (Camillo), Tom Cawte (Mamillius), Ryan Donaldson (Autolycus), Guy Hughes (Dion), Orlando James (Leontes), Sam McCardle (Young Shepherd), Eleanor McLoughlin (Perdita), Peter Moreton (Antigonus/Old Shepherd), Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Hermione/Dorcas), Joy Richardson (Paulina/Mopsa), Edward Sayer (Polixenes), and Sam Woolf (Florizel).

While I have not yet encountered a production of The Winter's Tale in which I had any doubt about Hermione's actual fidelity, her interactions with Polixenes have often been staged just on the cusp of the justifiably suspicious. Their playful vocal tones and their comfortable touching, not to mention their actual words, can suggest a kind of intimacy that, if glimpsed from an inconvenient angle or heard out of context, could cause a weak mind much concern.

Not so here.

Here Hermione and Polixenes were courteous, but neither spatially nor emotionally close. They sat far apart, and their tones to each other indicated just amicability. Affection, much less romance, were only and obviously the forced figment of a hyperactive imagination. As blonde, boyish Orlando James launched into Leontes's soliloquies, his wife and friend froze, and the light shifted, as if to indicate a transition from reality to the king's internal perspective. He proceeded to pose their bodies and faces, literally lifting their lips into smiles with his fingers, drawing their hands together, and even pushing them into copulative position and motion. His was a jealousy completely constructed from—as he himself said, albeit in denial—nothing.

Yet that jealousy should not have been surprising, even to anyone wholly unfamiliar with the play. Director Declan Donnellan's production began by establishing Leontes's psychological imbalance, as well as his immaturity and impulsivity. Leontes sat, smiling, alone on a bench built of three white wooden crates. (A dozen more crates stacked upstage constituted designer Nick Ormerod's simple but versatile set). He sat in silence for several long moments, but gradually the sounds of strident strings and ominous piano grew and crescendoed into a thunderclap, accompanied by peals of lightning and followed by an abrupt blackout. [End Page 339]

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Figure 2.

Edward Sayer as Polixenes, Orlando James as Leontes, Natalie Rad-mall-Quirke as Hermione, and Tom Cawte as Mamilius in Cheek by Jowl's 2016 production of The Winter's Tale. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Photo by Johan Persson.

Then, when the light returned, Leontes was joined by Polixenes, whom he chased around the stage, tackled, and wrestled, the two apparently reliving the days of their youth, but with a noticeably aggressive edge to their sporting. Before any word was spoken, we knew that this was an intensely competitive and troubled man.

He was an abusive man as well, we soon learned. Startled by Mamillius out of his reverie, Leontes slapped his son so hard the boy fell to the floor. The king quickly comforted the prince, but the damage was done. Worse, when confronting Hermione with her supposed adultery, he abruptly kneed her in the belly, prompting a breach of her pregnancy and a horrified gasp from much of the audience.

None of these assaults was a jot at odds with the text, and if anything I wondered why I'd never been this frightened by/of a Leontes before. Some of the threat came not from shocking action, however, but from terrifying quiet and calm. When Leontes first accused Hermione, I could barely hear his words: "'tis Polixenes / Has made thee swell thus"(2.1.63–64). I definitely did not hear Hermione's reply; her words were cut, replaced with a long, incredulous, and dangerous silence—a frequent device throughout this production, which trimmed the text substantially. [End Page 340]

But there were additions to the script too. Most effective was a single line following the reading of the Oracle. After the judgment, "his...


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