4 June 2000: Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge

Directed by Slobodan Unkovski. Opened 5/12/2000

A fine production in which realization, in settings, lighting, and costume, makes for everything. A great contrast between Sicilia and Bohemia: Sicilia a place of darkness, a stark, cold place of huge, monolithic walls; back panels slide left and up to enlarge into a door; Leontes’ throne a bleak, undecorated rectangle that rises up into solidity out of the stage floor; costumes somber, grey, little color — whereas Bohemia is all bright, vibrant color, with a huge complex ground cloth that can be made to balloon up by actors working underneath it and which has openings in it, at intervals, large enough for a man’s head or body to emerge through and pass out of. Between the two settings is the mediating, controlling figure of Time (played with consummate grace and intensity, and with perfect timing, by Benjamin Evett), who, in this production, is no cameo but a dominant presence from first to last. His staff is a seven-foot pole with a strong light at one end, which is whirled expertly and at times made to shine on persons or moments as if to illuminate, or expose, them, and to set the proceedings of scene in motion. He is also Hermione’s jailer.

The result of this stark contrast is that, when the action of the play returns to Sicilia, despite the magic of Hermione’s revivification the redemptive force of the resolution is quite bittersweet. Hermione (Mirjane Jokovic, badly miscast) the statue is placed in almost a fetal position, draped in loose, grey-silver garments whose color is matched by her now much-silvered hair, a Hermione who has aged noticeably in the fifteen years of her exile from life and breath. She rises, at Paulina’s bidding, descends the black stairs of her pedestal on wheels, and extends her hand to Leontes, who as the script requires exclaims at her warmth; but her look, at him and at others, is a look from a deep, profound well of alienation and permanent, irremediable pain and hurt; a specter, a wraith of the living, breathing human being she was. At the end, in a beautifully controlled and attenuated moment, we see, at the upper left edge of wall, a hand slowly sliding into view along the wall; it is the shade of the lost, dead boy Mammilius, apparent only to Hermione; he appears for a moment, then is gone forever. The lights go down.

This ending, its bleak, ethereal quality and the sense of unavoidable mortality that it states so clearly, is the governing moment of Unkovski’s interpretation of the play. Everything has been extrapolated back from this, it seems. It may be that Yokovic is Unkovski’s wife, or at any rate a fellow Balkanite — at least, that’s what I thought might be the inside circumstances of casting an actress so emphatically not the vibrant, statuesque woman, full of joie de vivre, whose very vitality allows her to be called back from the depths of time to grace the last days of the king whom she still loves, miraculously, and forgives. That’s the way I read the play, anyway. Unkovski is not allowing us to have any of that. This Hermione is a slight, thin to almost boniness, unlovely woman (with a noticeable Slavic accent despite her standing as a member of the American Actors Equity), not in the least classic, heroic, warm and loving, not the faithful, righteously indignant wife of Shakespeare’s tale of healing time and acceptance of irrecoverable loss.

On reflection I realize that his “take” on the play precludes traditional, expectable casting. I’ve never before seen a Hermione-statue in other than a … well, statuesque posture, standing tall, self-vindicative and wholly self-recapturing; here, it is a Hermione in a posture of collapse, all rolled up in herself and cruelly recalled to life by the exigencies of the script in which she is an unlucky, reluctant, and resistant player. It would have been a kindness to her not to have called her back from the depths of some timeless limbo of grief and loss.

The Bohemians inhabit another world entirely. Polixenes and his son Florizel are both played by African-Americans (John Douglas Thompson and Jovan Rameau), full of an expansive, easy, untroubled vitality, strong-willed and flexible. It is as if the seacoast of Bohemia has acquired a distinctively West African locale, and clothes and accoutrements brought in from Istanbul. Perdita (the very tall, very blonde Sarah Howe) may be the daughter of Leontes and Hermione called for in the script, but as a human being she could scarcely be more different; in height, body type, and other physical characteristics she is no child of Royal Sicily. Once in Sicily she is deeply moved by the discovery of her mother — or, we see the effects of that in the statue scene (Shakespeare carefully avoids diluting that climactic scene with a staging of the reuniting of Leontes and Perdita). But she stands at the other edge of what is finally the unbridgeable gulf between the ghost-like figure of her mother and herself.

I ended up liking this production, despite trepidations early on — and despite the inability of some members of the cast (Thompson and Jokovic, for quite different reasons) to speak Shakespeare’s blank verse with authority and ease. It is a hopeless quest, probably, for me, looking as I always do for an American production of Shakespeare in which the brilliant language of his plays is given anything like its due.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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