Bell Shakespeare, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5.
“A SAD tale’s best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins,” says the boy Mamillius, through whose eyes John Bell filters Shakespeare’s late, great fable. Mamillius’s bedroom, bathed in a fairy-world pastel light and hung with stars, is where everything will happen, a reflection of the lad’s experiences, imagination and desires.
Amidst the child-size chairs, tumble of toys and a dress-up box, Leontes, king of Sicily, launches into a bewildering denunciation of his wife Hermione and orders the deaths of those closest to him, Mamillius dies and his new-born baby sister is abandoned in Bohemia. Sixteen years pass and, magically, harmony is restored after scenes of bucolic simplicity, assumed identities and sweet romance.
Bell’s decision to put Mamillius at the centre is a touching one. The child who was supposedly the image of his father and presumably heir to his throne – where is he at the joy-filled ending? Has the sensitive boy who, “conceiving the dishonour of his mother, he straight declined”, been utterly forgotten?
Not here he hasn’t, and this brings a set of memorable images (a terrific solution to the “exit, pursued by a bear” problem) along with questionable emphases. Bell’s production lacks weight and deep resonance, a situation underscored by the laughter too often elicited where horror or disgust would be more effective. Not all the text is delivered with clarity, either – too often there are long strings of sounds that fail to make sense – although a big bouquet goes to Michelle Doake’s wonderfully centred Paulina. I also very much liked Felix Jozeps who doubles as a courtier in the first half and Prince Florizel in the second.
The production smooths over the two very different halves of The Winter’s Tale, but this isn’t a play that seeks stylistic unity. The first part is hell, or should be, and without strong distinction between Sicily and Bohemia the latter’s trippy flower-power vibe registers as goofy rather than the radiant relief of a world where love and peace may be found.
Myles Pollard’s hearty Aussie bloke reading of the part blunts the extremities of Leontes’s jealousy. He’s one of those vigorous touch-feely men, pummelling and punching, exerting his physical strength. It sets up the picture of a man who doesn’t think very much. That’s a possible way of looking at Leontes’s inexplicable actions, but a reductive one. The Winter’s Tale, as Bell’s production stresses, is a story; something of which to take heed. It’s not one of those all-too-frequent, terribly sad reports of domestic violence we read about every day in the paper, destined to be repeated in a never-ending loop of unreason. A Leontes such as this fails to convince of his profound sorrow, and he is rather sidelined in his reconciliation with Helen Thomson’s poised Hermione – potentially one of the most heart-cracking scenes in all theatre. This production has made it all about the boy.
But what a boy. At Wednesday’s opening Mamillius was played by Rory Potter (he shares the role with Otis Pavlovic). Potter, 13, is already remarkable. His qualities of keen watchfulness, alert intelligence and ability to be still but highly engaged are gold dust.
To have him as observer and at times orchestrator of the drama – he is a mini-Prospero if you will – is not a wildly off-kilter idea but it is limiting. The immense, soul-tearing themes of reconciliation, unswerving commitment to the truth, unalloyed goodness and the power of forgiveness in the face of appalling wrong are diluted. Bell gives us the story of a boy who wants his mummy and daddy to love each other and to be together. It doesn’t seem the best use of The Winter’s Tale.
The Winter’s Tale ends March 29.
A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 7.