Five things to look for when you watch ‘The Winter’s Tale’

If you’re going to see a performance of The Winter’s Tale, perhaps you’ve read the play (or maybe just the plot summary)—or maybe you’re going in cold. So, what should you look for in this Shakespeare play? What should you pay particular attention to?

We asked this question to directors at four of our theater partners across the U.S. who staged The Winter’s Tale this year: Seattle Shakespeare Company, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (And for good measure we threw in Folger Theatre, which last produced the play in 2009.)

Here’s what they said:

1. The bear

—George Mount, artistic director at Seattle Shakespeare Company

“The first question people ask when they hear you’re producing The Winter’s Tale is, ‘How are you doing the bear?’ It’s such an iconic bit of stage direction, and the answer to that question points to how the director and designers will handle the theatricality of the entire production.

How realistically or abstractly, how serious or silly “exit, pursued by bear” is handled is a microcosm of how the rest of the play is treated. The approach to the bear is a reflection of how magic, menace, fantasy and frivolity are manifest in the overall approach to telling this story. And because it’s such a key moment, it’s a huge challenge to the creativity of the production team, and the ability of the producing company to realize it satisfactorily. You’ll learn a lot about the production by how that question is answered.”

George Mount as Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, 2016. Seattle Shakespeare Company.

“Our production used slivers of projections for the bear, so audiences only got fragments of the menace and never really the full picture. It was theatrical, abstract and mysterious, and the powerful force of it loomed largely over the frail, small and vulnerable people beneath it. And I was actually the poor victim of famous stage direction.”

2. Time shift, genre shift, tone shift

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Phil Wong as the Clown in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Jay Yamada)

—Rebecca Ennals, artistic director at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

“In the lead-up to our production of The Winter’s Tale, I did a library lecture called ‘Awake Your Faith: Producing an Impossible Play’ in which I identified 5 challenges to engaging audiences with this complex play:

  1. The enormous span of time and geography – aging a group of actors 16 years, and presenting two countries with two distinct cultures
  2. The midway shift in genre from tragedy to comedy
  3. That famous stage direction, and how it is the pivotal point in shifting the audience from grief and terror into delight
  4. Getting the audience to forgive King Leontes for his despicable behavior when we see him again in Act V
  5. The death and rebirth of Hermione – how to make it magical and compelling and leave unresolved the question of where she’s been and what she’s been doing for 16 years

I kept these challenges in the forefront of my mind throughout the rehearsal process, always trying to put myself into the position of our audience, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with this play, and attempting to carry them with us.”

3. Fairytale elements

—James Keegan, director of The Winter’s Tale at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory 

“Like Shakespeare’s other romances (or tragicomedies, as they are also called)—The Tempest, Cymbeline, and PericlesThe Winter’s Tale centers on the most powerful emotions and experiences of human life: jealousy, tyranny, tragic loss, bitter remorse, patient penitence, forgiveness, reunion, and—that most miraculous of human possibilities—redemption.

“Unlike the other romances, The Winter’s Tale has the shape and feel of a fairytale. Almost as soon as the play has begun, a sudden dark enchantment of jealousy possesses King Leontes and brings down pain and destruction on his family, his kingdom, his life. A divine oracle speaks and is ignored. A tender life is preserved just at the moment when its destruction seems inevitable. A formidable witch-like fairy godmother figure named Paulina presides over the magic of the play’s second half. Between the play’s two halves a “wide gap of time” elapses. And if all that weren’t enough, the play contains this remarkable (and oft quoted) stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a Beare.”

“Our production seasons that fairytale flavor by presenting the story in original pronunciation—that is, we will speak Shakespeare’s words as Shakespeare heard them (or as near to that as the educated surmises of experts are able to bring us). When I heard fairy tales as a child—the stories of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen—one of their features that I so enjoyed was their verbal style, a sound they had that suggested they had been around for eons—the ring of timelessness. One of the things I hope you’ll savor in our production is the homey ring of the OP (original pronunciation) and how snugly it nestles in along the play’s fairy tale feel.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2016. The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Scenic Design: Richard L. Hay. Costume Design: Helen Q. Huang. Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao. Composer and Sound Designer: Andre J. Pluess. Choreographer: Valerie Rachelle. Dramaturg: Gina Pisasale. Voice and Text Director: David Carey. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Phil Killian Directing Fellow: Lavina Jadhawani. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Florizel (Moses Villarama) and Perdita (Cindy Im) are young lovers in Bohemia. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

4. All that singing and dancing in Act 4

—Desdemona Chiang, director of The Winter’s Tale at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“I think Act 4 (Bohemia) of The Winter’s Tale is one of the most underrated parts of the play. I can’t begin to tell you how many directors have advised me to cut as much of that act as possible, but I think it’s a huge mistake. You want to keep all that singing and dancing–and, yes, all that language about flowers too!–in the production. It takes us into a whole new world, introduces us to a whole new cast of characters, so that we can be swept away, distracted, and delighted in order to forget about Leontes and Hermione. So that when we return to Sicilia in Act 5, we’ve been away from it enough that there is truly something to return to.”

5. Leontes’s turn

—Beth Emelson, assistant artistic producer at Folger Theatre

“What I always look for in a production of The Winter’s Tale is the turn: Leontes’s quick fall from happy, delighted husband to jealous madman, with seemingly no provocation. The manner that the actor handles this turn, which comes so early on in the play, is the thing I look for to set the tone for the rest of the production. The delight for me is the wonder of it all.  I adore the idea that love, in so many forms, can connect with you at different moments in your life. No matter, where you are in your life when you see The Winter’s Tale, there is always something in the play that rises up to meet you.”

Folger Theatre The Winter's Tale
Daniel Stewart (Leontes), Connan Morrissey (Hermione), and David Whalen (Polixenes), The Winter’s Tale, directed by Blake Robison, Folger Theatre, 2009. Photo by Carol Pratt.