It is one of the most wondrous moments in all of Shakespeare’s plays; the moment near the end of The Winter’s Tale when the statue of Hermione comes to life. Whether it is magic, divine intervention, or merely the resolution of a well-concealed plot, it doesn’t matter. It never fails to leave me with a catch in my throat and a feeling of awe at the ability of theatre to engender so affecting a response.
In director Barry Edelstein’s glossy production, it is also the moment that reveals the healing power of time to set matters right, as all things lost are returned to their rightful place; all save the son. For his death, in the early part of the play, reminds us that the sins of the father must still be accounted for. While there is joyful reconciliation and long-awaited redemption by the end of the play, it still comes with an exacting price.
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says Mamillius, and Shakespeare presents one in this late romantic play written near the end of his career. In it, the boyhood friendship of Leontes and Polixenes is shattered when Leontes, for no apparent reason, accuses his best friend and his pregnant wife of being lovers. Once seized, nothing can persuade him he is mistaken and, like a madman, he snaps. He tries to have Polixenes killed but warned of the king’s intentions by Camillo, Polixenes makes a hasty retreat to his home country of Bohemia.
The king’s rage then sets in motion a series of events that rocks his kingdom and results in the deaths of his wife Hermione, his son Mamillius, old Antigonus (whose “exit, pursued by a bear” is one of the best stage directions in all of Shakespeare’s plays) and the exile of his baby daughter, Perdita. As in any fable, however, all is not what it seems and in the final minutes of the play, we are witness to a miracle that only Shakespeare could write with such undeniable beauty and grace.
Performances in Edelstein’s production, while carefully plotted, drift toward two ends of the emotional spectrum: intellectual and contained or pushed to the brink of excess. As Leontes, TV star Billy Campbell (who has also appeared at the Old Globe in The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing) acts with his voice but not with his body, a disconnect that makes him look uncomfortable, even during the celebratory opening party. There is also an absence of chemistry with leading lady, Natacha Roi (Hermione) which makes it difficult to invest fully in the sad breakdown of their marriage. Roi makes a strong and regal Queen but is emotionally distant, even during the trial where her cool defiance gives the scene a clinical quality. Likewise, Angel Desai is a strong-willed presence but her Paulina has a shrewish edge that escalates rapidly as her hysterics increase and then stays there.
When Time takes over and the action moves to Bohemia, the pastoral setting that emerges is in sharp contrast to the harsh tone of Sicilia. Flowers sprout from the parquet wood floor and strings of party lights drape where gleaming modern fixtures once lived (credit Russell H. Champs and Wilson Chin for their outstanding lighting and scenic designs), and formality gives way to simplicity in the action. But among the characters there is an awkwardness that continues to keep the audience at arm’s length, both in gesture and intention that is hard to ignore.
The chorus of metronomes that accompanied Time during his transition speech to Bohemia is quite striking, and an abrupt call back to the opening scene in which a single metronome ticks on a toy piano. Michael Torke’s original music is a bold mix of elements that are old-fashioned, jazzy, Sondheim-esqe, and ultimately very modern, lending a melodramatic quality to Edelstein’s operatic staging. It’s a go big or go home integration that can overwhelm at times, but when it strikes the right balance, it is wonderful. And oh, that miraculous moment when Hermione steps off her pedestal. No matter what has transpired prior to that singular event, it still reaches in and grabs you by the heart.
Though beautifully austere and intellectual in its approach, The Old Globe’s The Winter’s Tale contains whimsy in the details and creates a strong presence on stage. And Edelstein’s desire to bring Shakespeare back indoors after a ten year absence is a worthy endeavor that we hope continues for years to come.
Shakespeare in LA
THE WINTER’S TALE
Feb. 8 – March 16, 2014
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA 92101
Tickets: (619) 231-1941 or