(Image from Kennedy Center website)
The performance I had the pleasure of seeing on Tuesday was the Canadian National Ballet’s production of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.
Shakespeare’s story is just as packed full of melodrama and plot twists as a masala film. Two best friends, King Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk) of Siscilia and King Polixenes (Harrison James) of Bohemia, are driven apart during a visit from Polixenes when Leontes begins to suspect that his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Fischer) and Polixenes are having an affair and, furthermore, that the baby is Polixenes’s! Leontes goes into a jealous rage, his anger causing Polixenes to storm back to his own kingdom of Bohemia and, worst of all, Leontes rage upsets his wife and young son Mamillius so much that they die.
Leontes rejects Hermione’s baby and Hermione’s lady’s maid Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu) sends the baby girl to Bohemia with Antigonnus (Jonathan Renna) who is promptly killed by a giant wave, abandoning the baby on a beach with an emerald necklace marking her heritage. The baby is found by a shepherd (Donald Thorn) and his son (Dylan Tedaldi). Paulina, meanwhile, scolds Leontes to within an inch of his life and forces him to understand exactly what his jealousy has brought about. The first act ends very somberly.
The second act takes place in Bohemia 16 years later during a village festival of some sort. We see that the little abandoned princess, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone), has grown up unaware of her heritage but it just so happens that she has fallen in love with Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the prince of Bohemia! Prince Florizel disguises himself in the garb of the common folk and the two lovers enjoy a rollicking dance party with the villagers until… the festival is brought to an end by a furious King Polixenes, who is determined to put an end to any cavorting his son is doing with a (he believes) common shepherd girl. Perdita, her adopted father, her adopted brother, and Prince Florizel flee to Leontes’s kingdom--Perdita’s real kingdom--of Sicilia.
Finally, the third act sees Leontes reunited with his daughter when the emerald necklace is revealed! Polixenes, who has chased the young lovers to Sicilia, gladly forgives his former friend and the two are happily oversee the marriage of their children. But a bittersweet tinge hangs over the proceedings--the death of Hermione and Mamillius. Paulina forces Leontes to once more confront his actions of 16 years previously by revealing a statue of Hermione and Mamillius. Leontes grief is so great and his feelings of repentance so deep that the statue of Hermione awakens and the two dance a final, bittersweet duet.
Because I was unfamiliar with the plot of A Winter’s Tale I did a little reading beforehand to make sure I had the broad strokes of the story in case the choreography was more abstract than narrative. But I shouldn’t have worried. I had no trouble at all making sense of what was happening on stage. In fact, I think the dialogueless version of the story probably improves on Shakespeare’s original plotting, since it means that the long passages of the play that--at least judging by what I’ve read--people have historically found very tedious are by necessity left out and other elements are left very ambiguous and open to the audience’s interpretation. In other words, removing the dialogue puts the melodrama and magic at the forefront of the story.
The first act is very narrative and centers around the court of King Leontes. All the women wear long, very simple gowns in a variety of jewel tones that are used for a lot of gorgeous skirt work. The men are in long frock coats that flair out when then spin in a very pleasing way.
We are treated to some wonderful friendship scenes and dances between Leontes and Polixenes. Harrison James, as Polixenes, looks so cheerful and open-hearted that only a crazy person could believe ill of him. And, indeed, James’s warmth does really help to highlight Piotr Stanczyk’s rage. The jealously descends from the heavens and is nicely illustrated in a scene that has Polixenes and Hermione walking through a statue garden, shadowed by Leontes. We see “reality” and then the lighting changes and we see the licentious behavior Leontes is imagining. The sequence I found the most moving, though, was Leontes and Paulina’s scene at the end of the first act. Xiao Nan Yu as Paulina was magnificent, all feminine strength and dignity. As the curtains close on the tragedy the pair move to the very front of the stage, sitting on the ground, and as Leontes attempts to collapse, to melt into the earth, Paulina lifts his head to make him face the audience. This movement is repeated a few times and it just killed me.
Following this melancholy, the village dance of the second act is such a huge relief. The set for this act is really beautiful. A huge tree decorated with tiny ornaments and ribbons. The music and choreography are light, bouncy, joyful. The costumes are the opposite of the previous act. The women in Bohemia wear knee-length floral dresses and the men wear something like the Greek fustanella that, again, flairs very pleasingly when they spin. Perdita and Florizel, the young couple, are the complete opposite of the grown-up couples from the first act. They are a little tentative with each other but clearly just head-over-heels infatuated and delighted to be together. Only a monster would want to separate them. Is that what Polixenes has become?
And I’m not sure if this was by intention but I really enjoyed the difference in how the knee-length dresses were handled by the dancers compared to the long dresses in the first act. The long dresses were handled carefully and deliberately where the shorter dresses of the Bohemian villagers were left to fall where there would. When Naoya Ebe (Florizel) would lift Jillian Vanstone (Perdita) both of them seemed utterly unconcerned about her dress, letting it ride up her leg however it happened to ride up. I really liked the contrast with the uptight, controlled court of Leontes and the deliberate skirt handling, especially with Hannah Fischer as Hermione, and the men dancing with her, who also had to manage that pregnant stomach she had strapped on. That could not have been easy but she made it look so natural.
The third act is a mixture of the previous two, combining the solemnity of Leontes court with a burst of the joyful dance of the young lovers. The dance with Leontes and the statue of Hermione is really quite moving. His grief and regret and disbelief at her miraculous reappearance is all conveyed. Hermione herself is almost angelic. She seems beyond earthly concerns and, again, very movingly, appears to forgive him.
There are two things I think are worth mentioning in the plot since they are what gets talked about when people talk about A Winter’s Tale. The first is trivia, Shakepeare’s most famous stage dircection: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Here is the thing. Knowledge of trivia feeds the smug faux-cleverness that has come to dominate the arts conversation. What I mean is that we, as a society, talk about tropes, and “takes” on tropes, and infusing so much of the garbage talk of the academy into popular discourse that they miss the forest for the trees--or in this case, the wave for the bear. During the first intermission between the first and second acts, I overheard two women discussing the production but their entire conversation revolved around “the bear”: How are they going to do “the bear”? What’s the “take” on “the bear” going to be? What the women had missed, in the effort to appear clever, was how the stage direction fit into the story. What they missed was that there was no bear. Antigonnus had been killed by the giant wave at the end of the first act.
If for no other reason than that glaring reveal of the vacuous nature of so much of our arts conversation, I’m glad the bear was subsumed by the storm. As Wheeldon himself said, “Let’s face it, it’s hard not to giggle at an actor in a bear costume.” I would take it a step further--that giggle isn’t of humor but of recognition, the one moment the audience has been looking for, spotting it jerks us out of the narrative and breaks the mood. Removing the bear costume forces the audience to stay in the tragedy of the moment.
The other point worth discussing is the statue of Hermione returning to life at the end of play. A quick google search revealed a lot of academic discussion on this point. Was she just hiding for 16 years? Was it really a statue coming to life? Does it matter? Honestly, I was a little shocked when I checked the plot synopsis in the my program and saw written that Hermione had been in hiding for 16 years. The way the scene is performed, it really looked to me like Leontes brings the statue to life with his grief. The 16 years of hiding just bogs down the narrative in tedious exposition. As soon as you say she was in hiding for 16 years, it brings to mind all sorts of questions: Where was she hiding? How did nobody know who she was? This is the QUEEN! Was she just off in the woods eating berries? Magic is magic. The statue comes to life or, as I saw it, Leontes imagines it does. Magic as uncomplicated dream logic. It happens because it happens. Why interpret things so literally if you don’t have to? This obsession with rational explanation in myth and stories has also permeated our arts conversation. Look no further than Star Wars’s midi-chlorians to see how devastating the effect can be.
What surprised me when I was attempting to read up on this play and the production after I saw it is that so little discussion seemed devoted to the theme of male violence, which is just chilling in the first act, with Leontes dragging a pregnant Hermione around but then the way some sort of forgiveness and peace with past actions is found at the end. Despite the fact that our contemporary culture is laced through with therapy-speak, with “forgiving ourselves”, we’re also very unforgiving of other people’s foibles. Our fictional characters hate both the sin and the sinner. Through contemporary eyes, Hermione’s return would be seen as a domestic violence survivor returning to her abuser. Leontes’s actions are unforgivable in the contemporary culture. But Hermione does forgive him. The tragic consequences of his momentary madness are not undone but he finds peace. Does he “deserve” compassion? No. But he needs closure. He is human.
I wish I could write more about the dance and music but having only seen the production once, I’m afraid I don’t remember too much about the specifics, except that I really liked the score. I did order the DVD though and perhaps I will add an update when I’ve watched it again a few more times. But all in all, I highly recommend checking out the production if you get a chance!!