Although it is The Tempest that is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest late Romance play, I have always preferred The Winter’s Tale. There is something much stranger about the latter play, with its opaque commentary on the human condition. There is something more mysterious and enigmatic about its characters and what, through them, Shakespeare is trying to say about the human condition. Give me the erratic, brooding Leontes over the pompous and prosaic Prospero any day!
But its bizarre and sometimes inexplicable plot has often made it difficult for directors to present convincingly to audiences. For instance, in Leontes, King of Sicilia, we have a tragi-hero who suddenly, with no warning, descends into a paranoid and murderous rage after suspecting his wife of infidelity. Unlike with Othello, there is no Iago figure encouraging these delusions; instead it is the king’s own mood-swings that result in his decision to have his best friend and supposed cuckolder Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, bumped-off. Meanwhile Leontes’ beloved wife and son, who moments ago he had been lavishing in warmth and love, are callously sentenced by him to die in prison.
Max Webster’s production for the Lyceum deals well with this anomaly, using music and freeze-framing to capture the sudden shifts in the king’s character. We are left with the impression that John Michie’s Leontes might have always been a difficult man, prone to bouts of manic depression. Moreover, Alasdair Macrae’s vibrant Celtic score drives the entire production, seamlessly threading together the dark, tragic first half with the As You Like It-style pastoral comedy of the second half.
After the interval we are taken to Bohemia, where much of Shakespeare’s text has been translated by James Robertson into Scots – for Bohemia, read Channel 4 comedy Shameless reimagined in Leith. Leontes’ abandoned daughter Perdita now lives in the kingdom of her father’s former friend, after being rescued by a shepherd. Her journey will eventually lead us back to Sicilia and a famous resolution that offers Leontes’ – and all of us – the hope of second chances and new beginnings. Although, tragically, it’s too late for Leontes’ dead son Mamillius. Webster’s decision to portray the boy, seen innocently laughing and playing in the first scene, as a ghostly figure haunting the final scene is a masterstroke in this all-round brilliant production.
All photos by Mihaela Bodlovic.