The most telling thing about “The Winter’s Tale,” currently in repertory with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory, is what it does not show. We are the great, great grandchildren of Victorian melodrama, trained by hundreds of crime novels and genre works to savor the plot twist, the denouement, the unveiling. So the minute conflicted Antigonus places a shiny box and a mysterious bag beside the abandoned infant Perdita, we eagerly anticipate the moment when all will be revealed.
And how does this happen? In Act V, Sc. II, four boozy supernumeraries sit around jarring and give each other (and the audience) a quick rundown: the discovery of Perdita’s identity (the mysterious bag contains her mother’s scarf); the reconciliation of the kings of Sicily and Bohemia; the blessing of the betrothal of their children. Huh? Didn’t this man take Play Writing 101? Why is he throwing away his big moment?
Well, of course the answer is that Shakespeare didn’t see the wrapping up of his somewhat contrived plot (borrowed, as usual) as the big moment in his play. “The Winter’s Tale” is not a melodrama about a missing heir; it’s a tragi-comedy about loss, grace, and redemption. The big moment in this play is when Leontes takes the hand of the “statue” of Hermione, his dead queen, and says, “O, she's warm!”
This takes us right back to the opening scene. Already consumed by senseless jealously, Leontes, King of Sicilia, turns away from the sight of his wife affectionately touching Polixenes, the King of Bohemia and his guest, muttering, “Too hot, too hot.”
“The Winter’s Tale” is often criticized as being an unwieldy amalgam — a seeming tragedy with a pastoral romance tacked on to it like the rear end of a pantomime horse. But it can also be viewed as a progression — from comedies like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “As You Like It” that contrast court and country — and Shakespeare’s last great play, “The Tempest.” It offers up parallel worlds in which the crises of the former are solved in the latter, in which a disordered monarch (with a “weak-hinged fancy”) and his disordered state are realigned by simpler folk, in which the unearthly and the earthly meet to the betterment of both.
The contrast is first embodied in the kings themselves. Leontes is chilly and detached beside the bonhomous Polixenes, and Greg Hicks plays him as a man who seems uncomfortable in his own body. Once into the second half of the play, other parallels are drawn: the degraded union of Leontes and Hermione is potentially redeemed in the innocent love of Florizel and Perdita, while con man Autolycus (played with musical hall zest by Brian Doherty) finds his symbolic opposite in the play’s most compelling and problematic character, Paulina.
As portrayed by Noma Dumezweni, Paulina might easily be ranked among Shakespeare’s most resonant female roles. Dumezweni has a burnished contralto, and a physical bearing that radiates force held in check. While Kelly Hunter’s shell-shocked Hermione, whose secure life dissolves in an instant when Leontes accuses her of adultery, argues her case with affecting dignity, it is Paulina who defies Leontes and speaks truth to power:
I'll ha' thee burnt.
I care not:
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.
It is no wonder then, that she comes to dominate Leontes’ ruin of a life (an oracle of the god Apollo declares Hermione innocent, and he is informed in the same moment of the death of his queen and only son). She is the moral force that rushes into the vacuum created by his error and disgrace. She is also, very possibly, a sorceress, though it was dangerous to say so out loud. At the very least, she is the agent of her king’s redemption:
If you can behold it,
I'll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand…
It is required
You do awake your faith.
Leontes has earned this moment. Like a religious mystic, he has practiced daily penance hoping that Apollo’s prophecy (that he should have no heir until his abandoned daughter is found) would be fulfilled, but certainly not expecting to recover Hermione as well. (A typically bold Shakespearean move this, conjuring up Christian ritual in the service of a pagan God.)
We don’t really know if Paulina placed a spell on Hermione or has simply secreted her for the 16 years that separate the two halves of the play. “If this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating,” says the astonished Leontes. But, the “lawful magic” at work here is his own love, purified and cleansed of jealousy and possessiveness. The re-union of the king and queen also allows lost Perdita to be reborn as their child.
Shakespeare was about to create an even more fascinating architect of fate in Prospero, and there is a foreshadowing of him here in Paulina — in her authority, in her magic, and also in the way she cedes her power and steps back into the social tapestry once her job is done.
“The Winter’s Tale” has a strong cast, particularly Hicks, Dumezweni and John Mackay as Leontes’ honorable confident Camillo. Larrington Walker and Gruffudd Glyn strike an engaging balance between credulity and native wit, between honor and venality, as the Old Shepherd and his son, while Samantha Young effectively conveys the ambivalence of a girl with too much common sense to be cast in a fairy tale.
The actors are framed by a striking set by Jon Bausor (pictured above) that is a kind of living metaphor for the play’s thematic oppositions. Leontes’ palace is represented by two towering, acutely angled shelves of books that collapse around him at the end of Act III; they then become a “storm” of paper through which Antigonus struggles to hide the baby Perdita. The bear that devours him, a huge puppet created by Steve Tiplady, is also made of paper, as are the trees of lush Bohemia. And once back in Sicily, the collapsed library reminded one critic of Miss Havesham’s house in “Great Expectations,” but also echoes any number of abandoned palaces, awaiting relief from a spell, in fairy tales. The general effect is that of an insubstantial material world that takes the shape of its characters’ decisions and emotions. (Keith Clouston’s eerie Cage-like score contributes to the sense of tension and unease in Leontes’ palace.)
With Leontes and Hermione reunited and Florizel and Perdita wed, the set becomes an antechamber to the life awaiting the characters just out of our view, and director David Farr drives this point home by giving a final pantomimic moment to thieving Autolycus. As the other characters exit upstage center, the “door” physically and metaphorically, is slammed in his face. He is the Lord of Misrule, and with social order restored, there is no place for him.