The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Season Cycle

Another BBC Shakespeare review from 2006...


THE WINTER'S TALE

Christ I've seen a lot of Shakespeare. It's all sort of starting to blur into one. I can barely remember what happened in All's Well That Ends Well, and Titus Andronicus feels like a distant memory. Still, not many more to go.

Actually, I'm fibbing a little. I remember that All's Well That Ends Well was, to an extent, a transitional play, half a comedy, and half a romance. A romance being a more far-fetched exercise, not particularly concerned with plot logic or characterisation, taking place in an ahistorical, pseudo-pagan, mix-and-match land of myth. The romances tend also to drop deeply into tragedy for the first half, becoming truly bleak and miserable, before resolving joyously. They are about resurrection - they all feature characters believed lost and dead being reunited with their loved ones - renewal, rebirth. They are about travel to exotic lands, usually involving a shipwreck somewhere en route. They are not far from being performed poems.

That's Cymbeline, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale and Pericles. And All's Well, a bit. The Winter's Tale also shares with Pericles a time-shift of about 16 years during the interval, to allow for a babe to grow into a babe.

But The Winter's Tale is also an oddity. Even more than Love's Labour's Lost, it feels very mannered, very constructed and formal. Many of the characters seem unemotional, their dialogue doesn't reflect any inner life. Rather, they act as mouthpieces for dropped-in speeches, slightly idealised archetypes. We only get a sense of the characters from how others describe them, and not from how they themselves speak or behave.

This gives the proceedings a rather undramatic feel. It's very flat, and there are few occasions where the characters actually have to express emotion. There's no up and down to it, no conflict, not really any drama at all. It feels very artificial and recitative. Kind of like The Keeper of Traken.

That said, there are exceptions. The working-class characters - the Old Shepherd, his son the Clown, and Autolycus - are very vividly drawn, by way of a contrast, and are occasionally a lot of fun. I particularly liked this bit of daftness from near the end:

CLOWN: ...the king's son took me by the hand and call'd me brother, and then the two kings call'd my father brother, and then the Prince, my brother, and the Princess, my sister, call'd my father father.

But these characters don't turn up until Act IV, and are given nothing of consequence to do... they have their own subplot where Autolycus, a pickpocket, steals from the Clown only to be found out, forgiven, and then employed by the Clown in Act V. And there's a small bit about the Clown having two women on the go, rivalling for his affections, but this goes nowhere and is forgotten almost as soon as it is introduced unfortunately.

The ending of the play is also strangely-written. Nearly all the important events take place off-stage and are merely reported second-hand. We don't see Kings Leontes' and Polixenes’ reconciliation, or Leontes discovering his daughter Perdita is alive and meeting her for the first time, or Polixenes meeting his son Florizel and forgiving him for running off with Perdita, thinking she was a mere Shepherd's daughter when in fact she is a Princess. All of this, we don't see, and, even though it would take a lot of explaining, you want to see that stuff. These are big emotional moments, they are what the audience has been waiting for, and Shakespeare just throws them all away. You spend three hours following a story, you expect to see the story's end, don't you?

Instead, the end of the play is, famously, the return of Hermione From Beyond The Grave - as a statue coming supernaturally to life. Except she's not really a statue, she's been living in a hut belonging to Paulina, with Paulina bringing her meals for the last 16 years... and clearly the 'statue' Hermione is a real woman, as they mention at one point that it has grown wrinkly, which is unusual for a statue. Which Paulina excuses by saying:

PAULINA: So much more our carver's excellence, which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her as she liv'd now.

The other famous thing about this play comes towards the end of Act III, just before the interval, where Antigonus has to:

EXIT PURSUED BY BEAR

I expect in Willy the Quilly's day they would’ve used a live bear. Or maybe a real bear that had been killed and stuffed. Unfortunately nowadays our so-called theatre very rarely features unrestrained wildlife, and is the poorer for it. Though the play doesn't specify what type of bear it is - possibly it could just be a fat hairy man with a little beard. Or Paddington Bear, that would be considerably less threatening.

Another famous thing about this play is that Act III ends with a shipwreck on the shores of Bohemia. That's on the shores of Bohemia, the landlocked country (now called the Czech Republic). On seeing this, Ben Johnson snorted with pedantic derision and took the piss something chronic out of Billy's painfully bad grasp of European geography (see also: Cymbeline). On the other hand, maybe Shakespeare was deliberately getting it wrong, as the play takes place in a sort of blurred, misremembered reality with contradictions in terms of when it is supposed to be set. But it tells you something about Ben Johnson's relationship with Shakespeare.

Not so famous is the big problem with the play; that its whole plot essentially hinges on something which makes bollocks-all sense. You see, at the beginning the two Kings Leontes and Polixenes are great friends, having fun in Sicily, but then Polixenes checks his watch and says he really has to return to Bohemia before the trains finish. Leontes tries to persuade him to stay a while longer, but fails, so he asks his wife, Hermione, to have a go at Polixenes on his behalf. Hermione does manage to persuade Polixenes to stay, just as her husband requested...

...and suddenly Leontes spins off into a jealous rage, thinking his wife has been shagging Polixenes, and the only reason he now wants to stay is because she’s pregnant with his (Polixenes') child!

And I'm like what? Hello? That so wouldn't happen. It makes very little sense why Leontes would become jealous when he was the one who asked his wife to ask Polixenes to stay in the first place. Maybe this has been building up for years, but even so, in the play it seems to come out of nowhere and seems unlikely and contrived. Unlike in Othello, where Othello had at least some circumstantial evidence of his wife's infidelity, here Leontes seems paranoid to the point of being delusional, and this makes him rather unsympathetic because his troubles are not just of his own making, they are troubles that could be dismissed if he experienced even a brief second of rationality.

This makes the play - particularly the first three acts, which are all about Leontes’ jealousy (and then, eventually, his remorse at its consequences) – very hard to get through, because we're being expected to care about something without ever being given a credible reason - or any sort of incredible reason - as to why this situation has arisen. Rather, it is as though we are being expected to take an absurd premise seriously, but the longer it goes on, the less we care. It's also relentlessly depressing, Leontes basically whinging nonstop for about an hour.

Of course, this is because the play isn't really about why stuff happens, and indeed, as a play in terms of incident it is very thin. Rather, what incident there is serves merely to prompt vast, rolling swathes of dialogue - beautiful poetic dialogue - exploring the idea of jealousy. However, as I've said, it is done so in such a formal and I'll-stand-here-and-talk-about-this-for-fifteen-minutes type way that it becomes dull - Willy isn't dramatising the idea of jealousy, he's just using the plot as a means of linking together some (occasionally quite generic) speeches on the subject of jealousy, or fidelity, or betrayal, or adultery. And, for that reason alone, it's nowhere near as good as Othello's take on the same subject. Because no matter how flowery the speeches are, if they are being spoken by a character you don't care about - by someone with no discernible personality - it will all fall on unresponsive ears.

Basically, what I'm saying is, I fell asleep. For about half an hour. And when I woke up it was still the same person talking and the action hadn't moved on an inch.

John Dryden wasn't too keen on The Winter's Tale. 'The comedy neither caus'd your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment'. I think he might be being hard on the comedy, which does have some good moments, but otherwise I agree. He didn't like Love's Labour's Lost much either.

I imagine some of the problems with The Winter's Tale stem from it being an 'update' of what seems to have been a fairly rubbish play by Robert Greene (yes, the 'Groatsworth of Wit' chap, who believed Shakespeare was plagiarising his work for the Henry VI's). By all accounts The Winter's Tale inherits all of its structural messiness and plot logic (and its geographical errors) from Greene's play, and only differs from it in the inclusion of the final scene with Hermione being returned to life. So in essence The Winter's Tale is one huge polish job; writing each line of dialogue anew, but keeping exactly the same story and scene structure. Well, Willy was getting towards the end of his career, maybe his heart wasn't in it as much, or maybe - more likely - he thought it was such a familiar and corny tale that the story wasn't as important as the decorations he could adorn it with.

The BBC production is an underwhelm. It's very stagey - it takes place in a Playschool void, with different locations being projected onto backdrops - and, well, pretty cheap-looking. Not really any big names in it but Watson out of Sherlock Holmes is in it playing Camillo. The other problem is that, of these BBC DVDs, this one has really poor sound quality - I guess the originally recording was done at a low-level, as it's far too quiet and hissy. Things pick up for the second half but then there's some bloody terrible singing (deliberately bad, I hasten to add - 'comedy' bad singing by the Clown's two mistresses). You’re best off sticking with subtitles.

Word coinage? First up, there's the name 'Hermione', the source of the name used for the Harry Potter totty. There's also 'unearthly', without which we wouldn't have the title for our first Doctor Who. And also, quite surprisingly, it contains the word 'dildo', though Ben 'Look at a bleedin' map, Bill! Coast of Bohemia, my arse!' Johnson had already been using that word in his plays. It doesn't mean quite the same thing in those days though - in the context of the play, it's about a peddler arriving at a country fair shouting out 'Which young man here wants to buy his girlfriend a lovely big dildo as a sign of affection?' I mean, like, yeah, that would happen, rrrright.

Memorable quotes? Well, according to IMDB one famous quote is 'Senior ski trip is a Capeside rite of passage, absolutely guaranteed to be chock-full of the cruel and unusual' which I now realise is from the Dawson's Creek episode A Winter's Tale. The internet also tells me that both Heartbeat and Never The Twain have had episodes called A Winter's Tale. It was also a hit for David Essex, written by top Tory-touting twosome Mike 'Snookering You Tonight' Batt, and Tim 'Dictionary Corner' Rice. Tim Rice, Tim Curry, what is it about Indian dishes and men called Tim?

So not many memorable quotes. 'A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles' sounds familiar. 'I have drunk, and seen the spider' is a good quote, but not particularly famous. Plus, of course, there's ‘Exit Pursued By Bear’.

The Bear in the BBC production is spectacularly super-rubbish. Makes the giant rat and the Myrka seem half-way respectable. It's almost as bad as the cow from Neverwhere, if you remember that. The bear is like - and actually may very well be - the one out of the Hofmeister ad. It even has the little porkpie hat.

Synopsis time!

We're in Sicily, where the King of Sicily, Leontes, and his pregnant wife, Hermione, are enjoying a visit by their Czech mate, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes. Polixenes has been enjoying their hospitality for nine months and says it's time he was due back in Bohemia. Leontes attempts to persuade him to stay but fails. Leontes asks his wife to have a go, and she succeeds in convincing Polixenes to stay.

Seeing his wife winning over Polixenes, but otherwise apropos of f*ck all, Leontes wonders whether Polixenes has been enjoying a little too much hospitality, and maybe the forthcoming sprog is not A1 pukka Sicilian but instead a Bohemian mixed blend. Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to kill Polixenes for knocking up his wife. Camillo however believes Hermione to be innocent of breaking commandment seven, and advises Polixenes to get out of Sicily promptly-sharpish. Polixenes does a bunk with Lord Camillo.

The fact that Polixenes has skedaddled merely serves to confirm his guilt in Leontes’ paranoid eyes. Leontes accuses his wife of making whoopee with Polixenes. She denies it. He accuses her again. It goes on a bit, and in the end they decide there is only one way to settle this; they should consult the oracle at Delphi, because it will give them a telling text and they will see the facts.

In the meantime, Hermione is placed in captivity and gives birth to a baby girl. Paulina, the wife of another Sicilian Lord, Antigonus, reports this and has a go at Leontes for wrongly accusing his wife of adultery. Leontes has none of it and orders Antigonus to take the new-born babe and dump it somewhere in another country. Antigonus reluctantly agrees to the mission.

Oh, and around this point Leontes and Hermione's son, Mamillius, dies off-stage too. Not sure why, not sure I care why.

Word comes back from the oracle at Delphi. Hermione hasn't been doing the naughty wheelbarrow with Polixenes, and her new-born babe - the one which has been taken away by Antigonus, remember - is one hundred per cent Sicilian, ripe from the loins of King Leontes.

Leontes refuses to believe this. Hermione collapses and is taken off stage by Paulina. Paulina returns to tell the King that his wife has died of grief. Distraught, Leontes suddenly changes his mind and realises he has made one massive f*cker of a dreadful mistake but it's too late to do anything about it now. He vows to be miserable until the end of his days as an act of mourning his dead wife, son and daughter.

Meanwhile, Antigonus arrives with the baby on the non-existent shores of Bohemia, thinking that as the baby sprang from Bohemian todger that would be an appropriate place to drop it off. Antigonus, however, is in a bad way, having had some scary dreams foretelling his doom. And, sure enough, no sooner has he dropped the baby off on the beach when a F*CKING BEAR TURNS UP and chases him.

A couple of shepherds are watching - known only as Old Shepherd and his son, the Clown. The Clown is a sort of Pike out of Dad's Army figure, a rather stupid boy. He reports that the bear has mauled Antigonus to death and the boat that Antigonus came in on has sunk with all hands. Old Shepherd resolves to bring up the baby as his own. The baby has a label on it, saying that its name is Perdita. As in perdition, presumably. TERRY NATION EAT YOUR HEART OUT.

You may notice that this is nowhere near as densely-plotted as, say, Coriolanus. Because by this point we are now at the end of Act III - but we're not even half-way through the play. This is because Act IV, which we haven't got to yet, is the longest single act in all of Shakespeare. It's 1142 lines long - compared to the whole of The Comedy Of Errors which is 1786 lines long. You may think this is because a lot happens in Act IV. If you do, you’d be wrong.

Act IV, and old Father Time walks onto the stage with an hourglass to tell us that it is now 16 years later. Nowadays you'd do this with a caption but back in those days it required a five-minute speech and 'previously on Buffy'. Perdita has grown up into a pretty young shepherdess, though she is clearly of a higher, more noble breeding, being so polite, kind, and pretty and not being covered in shit. She's fallen in love with a peasant called Doricles, little realising that Doricles is in fact Florizel, the son of Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. He's adopted a disguise for no particular reason. Maybe he just wants to get away from the palace and enjoy the rustic life.

Because that's what Act IV mainly is. It's a sort of rural, pastoral, pagan idyll. People sing, they dance, they bake clams, they give each other flowers, they romp in the fens (and spinnies), they chew bits of straw and wear smocks, and they do a great deal of sheep shearing. All quite charming, in a way. After the unremitting misery and gloom of the previous three acts, it comes as a glorious ray of sunshine.

Florizel isn't the only one to have adopted a disguise in which to enjoy the world-famous Bohemian sheep-shearing festival. The King Of Bohemia, Polixenes, and his friend Camillo (remember him?) also adopt disguises, or at least put on implausibly large beards, to enjoy the feast. The King also wants to check up on what his son has been getting up to recently... and he learns that what his son has been getting up to is a common young Shepherd girl called Perdita and that they plan to shortly be married. The King is gravely disappointed with his son...

The King, in disguise, confronts his son Florizel, who is also in disguise. The King recognises Florizel but Florizel doesn't recognise his own dad, because he is wearing an implausibly large beard. The King asks Florizel (aka 'Doricles') whether he has told his dad about his plan to marry Perdita. Florizel tells him he hasn't, because his dad is a bit of an unfeeling arse and wouldn't understand. At which point the King whips off his beard, much to his son's surprise, and yells 'I *AM* THAT UNFEELING ARSE! YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE GIT!' and promptly disinherits him and banishes him from the kingdom. Well, it could happen. I'm not claiming this is a documentary.

Camillo tries to persuade Florizel to apologise to his dad, but instead Florizel - who has given up on his disguise, which arouses no comment from anyone at all, not even his girlfriend - decides he will flee from Bohemia with Perdita and seek refuge in Sicily.

Also in this Act (Act IV) there's some business with the Clown and a rascal called Autolycus. Autolycus gets up to all sorts of hi-jinks, adopting different disguises, getting the better of the stupid-boy Clown, but it doesn't exactly lead anywhere. Autolycus has also promised to marry two bumpkin maids, Dorcas and Mopsa, but this doesn't really go anywhere either. There's a lot of singing Bohemian rhapsodies. Interestingly, I note that one of the songs contains the line 'My dainty duck, my dear' which is a near-paraphrase of a (deliberately badly-written) piece of comedy alliteration from Midsummer Night's Dream; what Pyramus says upon discovering Thisbe's dead body, I think.

Anyway, Act V and we're back in miserable old Sicily, where King Leontes has been driving everyone up the wall by constantly going on about how he f*cked up his life sixteen year ago and he still hasn't got over causing the death of his wife, daughter and son as a result of his own jealousy. His Lords are bloody sick of it by now and advise him to, you know, get over it, move on, put it behind you etc.

But who should arrive in Sicily but Florizel and Perdita. Florizel tells Leontes that his dad, King Polixenes of Bohemia, is sorry about the whole falling-out-sixteen-years-ago thing and would like to be friends again. Leontes is rather touched by this. Then who should arrive in Sicily but Polixenes himself!

Cut to: Some Lords outside the palace. Apparently everyone has had a big chat and sorted everything out. That's nice. It's not exactly dramatically satisfying but it's nice to know that everyone is getting on with each other again. Polixenes and Leontes are mates again. Polixenes and his son have also forgiven each other. And the whole Perdita being the daughter, not of an Old Shepherd, but of the King of Sicily, is resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Presumably all these reconciliations and reunions are deeply moving, because the Lords tell us that they are. But, well, tch! That's what I say! Tch! and blah!

But what about Hermione? You'd all forgotten about her, hadn't you. Because she died sixteen years ago. Or did she? Or did she? Because Paulina has turned up, and invited the whole cast back to her place, where she has a 'statue' of Hermione in a hut. A very realistic statue, she claims. A statue she has been looking after for the last sixteen years, bringing it meals and so forth. A statue so good you would swear it was, in fact, Hermione just standing very very still.

Everyone heads off to see the statue being unveiled. And it is pretty realistic. King Leontes in particularly is rather taken aback by it, and begs the 'statue' forgiveness for accusing his wife of adultery and wanting her dead. And then - in what I can hardly describe as a surprise twist - the statue comes to life as Hermione returns FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. It's the Shakespeare equivalent of 'And Tiny Tim, who did NOT DIE'. A statue coming to life, that's the sort of bloody stupid trick that George Bernard Shaw would pull. The big old beardy twat.

There's lots of tears, and hugs, and people slapping their foreheads and going 'a statue? alive? but how?' And all we need now for a happy ending is for Paulina to be given a new husband. Everyone looks around, patting their pockets and whistling, until King Leontes suggests she marry Camillo. He'll do. And so, despite there not being the remotest hint of any affection between them, they decide to get married, just for the sake of tidying things up.

So, overall - I was a bit disappointed and bored by this one. I know some people like it, some people really like it, but I found it hard work. I'm not sure the partitioning of the 'tragedy' and the 'comedy' sections of the play really works and, well, I never got the sense of an author being excited by his work.

Next up: I don't suppose you could you lend me a fiver till the end of the week? Yes, it's time for Timon Of Athens.

1 comment:

  1. "The BBC production is an underwhelm. It's very stagey - it takes place in a Playschool void, with different locations being projected onto backdrops - and, well, pretty cheap-looking."

    Blame Jonathan Miller. When the project began under Cedric Messina, the money people guaranteed the cash because it was agreed that the productions would be very of the period but realistic, whatever that meant, in other words what we have with Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It or Taming of the Shrew. But Messina had production problems in general and work he was turning out because it was so "traditional" was thought to be too musty and pointless by tv critics and some the right-on people in the BBC so he was fired and Miller was brought in and unfortunately he went in completely the other direction and embraced the artifice of the television studio and effectively decided to create filmed theatre which on the one hand led to the superb second Henriad cycle in the venture playground but on the other ended up as this, which I hated, hated, hated and like you dozed through.

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