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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Winter's Tale

I just saw The Winter’s Tale in Washington, D.C. last night at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.

It was excellent!

Brent Carver, Ted van Griethuysen, Tom Story, Nancy Robinette, Todd Bartels and Heather Wood
photo by T. Charles Erickson
If you are in or near Washington, I highly recommend you go see it. The play runs through 23 June.

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share some thoughts with you.

The cast was excellent, the direction was very strong, the music was very inspired and the entire production was very engaging.

Mark Harelik as Autolycus
photo by T. Charles Erickson

The actor Mark Harelik gave a bravura performance. Getting to play Leontes and Autolycus in the same show must be an actor’s dream, getting to play some of Shakespeare’s darkest drama and some of his lightest humor. Mr. Harelik clearly reveled in it, and it was very entertaining to watch him.

And, when he reads the Oracle’s prophecy, his choking on bitter laughter was incredibly moving.

As Hermione, Hannah Yelland was very good. She breaks your heart when she learns that her son has died, and she mends it when she comes to life at the end. I think it is the hardest role of the entire play, and Ms. Yelland makes it seem effortless.

Nancy Robinette as Paulina, Heather Wood as Perdita, Mark Harelik as Leontes, and Todd Bartels as Florizel
photo by T. Charles Erickson

I especially liked Nancy Robinette’s performance as Paulina. As the one person who speaks truth to the power that is the King of Sicilia, it is critical role, and she really sank her teeth into it.

But the rest of the cast was great, too. 

There are only nine actors altogether, including Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes, Todd Bartels as Dion and Florizel, Brent Carver as Camilo, Tom Story as Cleomenes and the Clown, Ted van Griethuysen, and Heather Wood as Mamilius and Perdita.

I liked the fact that the actors were so few, because it’s small size made for an excellent ensemble.

Do yourself a favor and go see this production. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione, center stage
photo by T. Charles Erickson

I will admit that I have often struggled to understand this play. I understand the action of the play, the story and characters. But I have grappled with its meaning in the context of Shakespeare’s life.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to me is when the play was first written.

To me it seems like two entirely different plays that were weaved together. Shakespeare often edited his own work, and re-wrote his plays, so it is not impossible to think that this play, as we have it now, is the product of more than one attempt to tell this story.

The tone of the first half of the play, set in Sicilia, is so dark. The tone of the second half, much of it in Bohemia, is so light.

What was Shakespeare doing?

When I wrote my version of Richard III, I found clear indications that the version of the play as we have it now is a product of two different versions stitched together. 

The character of Richard III in the first half of that play is not at all like the character of Richard III in the second half. One is funny and wickedly charismatic, while the other is dull and two-dimensional.

So, why should The Winter’s Tale be any different?

The Winter’s Tale may have been written as late as 1611, or as early as 1594. So which is it?

I think it was both.

In 1594 Shakespeare was quickly establishing himself as the greatest and most successful playwright in London, without a rival. His plays at the time were full of boundless energy and wit.

Elizabeth was Queen, and while there were problems during her reign in 1594, Shakespeare’s perhaps naive optimism for the future could have inspired him to write a light and funny play called A Winter’s Tale.

By 1610-11, he was facing the end of his career and while he was still the greatest playwright in London, playwrights like Ben Jonson were overtaking him.

James was King, and there were so many problems with his reign by 1610, that Shakespeare may have given up any hope for the future, his or the country’s.

I can easily imagine that he would dust off an old play like A Winter’s Tale and surprise the audience with a darker version of Shakespeare’s earlier lighthearted play, and with a character of Leontes who was clearly an unflattering caricature of King James.

As I continue to write my versions of Shakespeare's plays, the next one being Othello, I will demonstrate why Shakespeare wrote what he did in the last years of his career, including The Winter's Tale, and what these plays mean in the context of his own life.

So, please stay tuned.

And in the meantime, go see this excellent production from the Shakespeare Theatre Company.


David B. Schajer

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