This was the first time I’d seen The Winter’s Tale, which apparently is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. How did it get like this?
(William Shakespeare calls on Richard Burbage at The Globe Theatre)
BURBAGE: Come in, Will. Now, about that new play of yours.
SHAKESPEARE: The Winter’s Tale?
BURBAGE: Yes, that one. Got a couple of notes for you from the rehearsal.
SHAKESPEARE: Do you?
BURBAGE: Yes. It’s not very funny, is it?
SHAKESPEARE: It’s not meant to be. It’s a tragic story of jealousy and guilt.
BURBAGE: I can see that, but the audience doesn’t want another tragedy, they want a laugh.
SHAKESPEARE: I could throw in a comedy gravedigger.
BURBAGE: Again? You did that in Hamlet, and it wasn’t funny then.
SHAKESPEARE: Local craftsmen and artisans?
BURBAGE: You did that in Dream.
SHAKESPEARE: Country folk? Haven’t done them for a while.
BURBAGE: Yes, that’ll do it – country folk. Shepherds, maybe. Bit of singing and dancing, frolicksome bucolic garden party. I reckon you could get a good 20 minutes’ funny material there.
SHAKESPEARE: (sighs) Right. Anything else?
BURBAGE: Yes. It’s running a bit long. You need to take out a half-hour, maybe more now you’ve added the singing shepherds.
SHAKESPEARE: But that’s a whole Act! How am I going to do that and the story still make sense?
BURBAGE: I shouldn’t worry about that. How about a voiceover? “During the Interval, sixteen years have passed…” kind of thing.
SHAKESPEARE: Already done. Wrote it after last night’s run-through.
BURBAGE: Well, you need to find something else. How about getting rid of the reconciliation scene?
SHAKESPEARE: But the play’s been building up to that.
BURBAGE: You don’t need it. We’ll drop the curtain, you can get a couple of the funny farmers to do a turn at the front to explain what’s happened, and while they’re doing that we can be setting up the stage for the finale.
SHAKESPEARE: The audience won’t be happy. That’s the payoff they’ve been waiting for.
BURBAGE: They’ll see it as an interesting piece of theatre craft. Trust me on this.
SHAKESPEARE: (sighs deeply) Is that it?
BURBAGE: The ending.
SHAKESPEARE: What about it?
BURBAGE: Bit of a downer.
SHAKESPEARE: It’s a tragedy.
BURBAGE: So you said. But now we’ve got the singing and dancing bit, the ending needs a lift. That queen who died in Act III….
BURBAGE: Yes, her. How about…..she’s not really dead!
SHAKESPEARE: She is dead. The king went to see the body.
BURBAGE: Then how about….she’s a statue that comes back to life?
BURBAGE: Yes, it’ll be brilliant. We wheel her onstage while the curtains are closed, there’s some chat about how sad everyone is, bit of mystical magic stuff, then – TA DA!!! – back to life, everyone friends again, crowd goes home happy. Can’t fail.
SHAKESPEARE: (sighs very deeply) OK, leave it with me. (Turns to leave)
BURBAGE: Oh, Will, one more thing.
BURBAGE: My son got a bear costume for his birthday, absolutely loves it, won’t take it off. I said he could wear it in the play tonight.
SHAKESPEARE: Really? You want me to write a part for a bear?
BURBAGE: He’ll be thrilled.
SHAKESPEARE: He’ll be a laughing-stock. He’s eight.
BURBAGE: I’m sure you can do something, Will. Put him behind a screen, lit from below, giant shadow, that sort of thing.
SHAKESPEARE: Sure. Maybe he could eat Antigonus after he abandons the baby.
BURBAGE: Brilliant! Off-stage, though – we don’t have a budget for special effects. He’s going to be so excited. Look, here he is now. Doesn’t he look fierce in that costume?
SHAKESPEARE: Oh, good grief. (Exit, pursued by a bear)
(With thanks to PD for additional material)
Setting aside the problems with the cobbled-together feel of the play itself, one of the interesting things about the production was seeing Shakespeare performed on a “conventional” proscenium arch stage. Most Shakespeare I’ve seen live recently has been at the RSC, with the thrust stage (audience on three sides), and the on-screen broadcasts have been from the National Theatre (very big stage) or Royal Exchange (very compact and “in the round”). This staging in the beautiful Garrick Theatre feels “conventional” by comparison – actors on stage, audience out front, footlights, curtains.
The performances are, as expected, really good. Kenneth Branagh, in a pre-recorded piece before the broadcast began, talked about his philosophy of “conversational Shakespeare”, to be spoken as natural speech, not declaimed in a sonorous voice, and he makes the role of Leontes feel believable (at least, within the confines of the plot). Dame Judi Dench is radiantly matronly as the tragic Paulina.Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman play the lovers Perdita and Florizel with charm and passion, and John Dagleish’s Autolycus is wonderfully rogueish. And the singing and dancing in Act IV was spectacular.
But the bear was off-stage – I guess it’s hard to pull off a convincing man-in-a-bear-suit effect for a modern audience.