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Alan Charlton

Bard launches summer with The Winter's Tale

Voices Jul 7, 2017

Actors perform Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale as part of the bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vanier Park. Alan Charlton writes, the play "is thoroughly enjoyable and diverting—a perfect entertainment for a summer evening." (Screen shot via bardonthebeach.org)

For Lower Mainlanders, for whom summer has at last “come in,” there is no more attractive entertainment than Bard on the Beach, now in its 28th season. And for anyone planning to attend, there is probably nothing more attractive than the production of THE WINTER’S TALE.

Unfortunately, this play is relatively rarely performed, particularly when set beside the great tragedies or the more popular comedies. Yet it remains one of the most delightful and captivating of the entire canon.

Its plot is decidedly improbable as it recounts the story of Leontes, King of Sicily and husband of Hermione, who is suddenly plunged into jealousy of his friend Polixines, King of Bohemia, whom he suspects has had an affair with his wife.

In short order, Leontes discovers the tragedy that arises from his baseless jealousy as he banishes Polixines from his kingdom, suffers the death of his young son, and learns that his wife has died in giving birth to a daughter.

Convinced that the daughter is not his, he orders that she be left to exposure in the countryside. Suddenly the tone of the play changes as the scene changes to Bohemia – a shift perhaps most famously symbolized by the stage direction for one character: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Fifteen years elapse and Leontes’ daughter has grown into a lovely young woman being courted by Florizel, who, unknown to Perdita, is actually the princely son of Polixines. Here we are brought into an Arcadian world of shepherds and shepherdesses, of lightness and gaiety, which ultimately leads to a decidedly unbelievable set of coincidences and plot developments which under Shakespeare’s delicate hand tells a winter’s tales of tragedy, transitioning through summer to fruitful autumn, the time of sheep shearing and fruitful abundance.

Not surprisingly, the Bard on the Beach company rises to the challenge.

Clearly, THE WINTER’S TALE presents a challenge to director, production team, and cast as they come to terms with a magical and enchanting entertainment. Not surprisingly, the Bard on the Beach company rises to the challenge.

Visually the production is quite lovely. Tall white pillars establish the court atmosphere of the opening scenes, with beautifully draped costumes conveying a Greco-Roman feel. When the scene moves to the realm of Arcady, with its peasant characters and rough-spun costumes (and some totally delightful animals), the contrast is totally appropriate.

The climactic scene of reconciliation and healing is magically presented.  At the same time, the cast acquits itself well. In particular Sereana Malani delivers a compelling performance as Hermione, while Kaitlin Williams and Austin Eckert as Florizel and Perdita beautifully capture the joy of youthful love.  

The production is not without its flaws. There is a considerable amount of comedy, largely centring on a character called Autolycus – a rogue who is somewhat down on his luck, and who has become a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” Unfortunately, director Dean Paul Gibson has directed these scenes with heavy hand, settling for hamming up when a light and delicate touch is called for, as is signified by Autolyucus’ opening song.

Aiming for cheap laughs, this approach undercuts Shakespeare’s clear delight in the lifestyle of English pastoral life – for there is no doubt about it that Bohemia is the English countryside brought to loving life.

This lapse is rather surprising in that Malcolm Dow’s musical soundscape is quite beautiful – though Tracey Power’s choreography, particularly where it involves a kind of masked Greek chorus is decidedly intrusive.  However, in the end, the production of THE WINTER’S TALE at Bard on the Beach is thoroughly enjoyable and diverting – a perfect entertainment for a summer’s evening.

Bard on the Beach is offering several other productions this season – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, as well as a new production of Leiren-Young’s SHYLOCK; obviously there is something here for everyone. What a joy it is to welcome back summer and Bard on the Beach!