It is the occasional handicap of the theatre reviewer that a production’s more compelling features cannot be much discussed without the dreaded risk of spoilers.
So, for the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Winter’s Tale, which opened Saturday, a few ground rules.
One: We can’t go on at length about Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and this production’s haunting way of getting around it – other than to say it works, and that bears can come in many forms.
Two: We will not discuss in great detail the ending of this production (by which I mean the very ending, as in the final 15 seconds), other than to say – wait for it.
Three: We may say only a little about the compelling way director Mikaela Davies handles one of the most problematic elements in this problem play, the death of the young Mamillius. (See Two, above. There. We’ve said a little.)
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, known as the late romances, that blend elements of tragedy and comedy, and also rely more heavily on what we might today call special effects.
Some critics have also lumped it into the category of “problem plays,” because, unlike Shakespeare’s more generically pure comedies and tragedies, Winter’s Tale leaves the audience with unanswered questions.
The play begins as tragic, when King Leontes of Sicilia, lifelong best friends with King Polixenes of Bohemia, is suddenly possessed of a fever-like jealous suspicion that his friend has committed adultery with his wife, Queen Hermione. His jealous rage leads to the death of his young son, Mamillius, and his wife, and the banishment of his newborn daughter, Perdita.
Divine judgment (of the Greek mythology kind) has proven Leontes wrong, and the end of the tragic part of the play finds the king reduced by grief and repentance.
Sixteen years pass (a gap some may see as a “problem” in this “problem play”) and the mood switches to comedy, with the music starting on cue, and Perdita living in a Bohemian pastoral landscape, romantically involved with Polixenes’ son Florizel.
Much scheming ensues, and the action returns to Sicilia, where truths are comprehended, and magic (again, one can infer, of the Mount Olympus variety) turns a magical statue of the late Queen back into the living Queen herself.
Festival regular Jesse Nerenberg, who over the years has shown a talent for comic exaggeration, manages to dance between the comic and the tragic in the early stages of Leontes’s jealous rage, but soon turns entirely tragic, then intensely repentant, the intensity of his performance being one of this production’s admirable feats.
Another festival regular, Quincy Armorer, projects aggrieved honesty as Polixenes, but also has his tyrannical moment, infusing a new hint of tragedy into the comic side of the play.
Leontes, in his rage, is met by a fierce counter-performance by festival newcomer Catherine Rainville as Hermione, who not only stands her ground when accused, but stays remarkably immobile in the statue scene.
Adding to the worthy female counterbalance are powerful performances by Tamara Brown as Paulina (also stealing part of the show as Autolycus) and Kim Nelson as Camilla (who is male in the original text).
Meanwhile, Sophia Swettenham also staddles the male-female divide as both Mamillius and Perdita (again, see Two, above), and displays a lovely singing voice.
This production of Winter’s Tale, despite the difficulties of negotiating a meeting between the comic/pastoral and courtly/tragic worlds, is gripping in its handling of the action and fascinating to watch as it reconciles complexities that mirror life outside the amphitheatre.
This is visible in the ending, with a statue scene so beautifully composed one almost forgets the implausibility of the supernatural, carried away by an almost balletic movement toward reconciliation and forgiveness.
But I may have already said too much.
(More information on The Winter’s Tale and Cyrano de Bergerac, which opens Wednesday evening, is available by calling 613-925-5788, or online at www.stlawrenceshakespeare.ca)