Working from home had drained Gwen more than she expected. She had always been comfortable on her own, without having a supervisor or manager peering over her shoulder as she worked. Had someone asked her, a month ago, if she’d prefer to work in the comfort of her home, she’d have leapt at the opportunity.
But “comfort” wasn’t what the home felt like to Gwen. Despite making sure she took walks outside regularly (at Eleanor’s urging), their small apartment was feeling more claustrophobic by the hour––to say nothing of Gwen’s preferred kind of social interaction: the collective anonymity provided by the dark blanket of a theatre audience. Now, to Gwen’s distress, both the audiences and the stages of Chicago were shrouded in darkness, and would be for some time.
Which had led Eleanor and Dania to start looking into streaming options. To their delight, a number of companies had taken pains to stream their previous productions online during the quarantine, from The House Theatre of Chicago’s The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan to Prop Thtr’s I Am Going To Die Alone…. But it was during their stumbling though YouTube’s collection of streamed productions that they stumbled on a true gem: Cheek By Jowl’s production of Shakespeare’s problem play, The Winter’s Tale.
The production held significance for Gwen. After the internationally acclaimed company had brought their viscerally angry staging of Measure For Measure to Chicago in 2016, Gwen had fallen in…love was too strong a word. She’d fallen in fascination with the company, whose emotionally charged and conceptually dense staging of Shakespeare’s plays had afforded them renown.
This was what made it so painful for Gwen when the company returned, at the end of that year, with their staging of The Winter’s Tale, one of the most difficult scripts to make appealing to audiences for the ingrained male entitlement of its protagonist, King Leontes, and its rapid switch from tragedy to comedy. In short, it was the perfect play to be run through Cheek By Jowl’s artistic filter.
And Gwen missed it. The production ran in December, opening one day after Gwen had left the city for the holidays. Distraught about the loss of the production, she had hoped it would one day be filmed, so she could watch what would certainly be a heart-shattering production. As Eleanor and Dania discovered, Cheek By Jowl had streamed the production. The video they found had gone live in 2017, and made newly available for the month of April. It was exactly what Gwen was looking for.
– – – – –
“Well, that wasn’t what I expected,” Gwen said, as the bows began.
Eleanor was similarly puzzled, staring at the screen as if to draw out answers to all of her questions. The staging, directed by Declan Donnellan, moved the action to the present, with a simple crate-box set by Nick Ormerod.
“I didn’t realize the stage was so wide, initially,” said Eleanor, as they watched the actors fan across it to bow.”
“I didn’t either,” Gwen said. “Or how deep it was. I think that’s partially due to how the captured version is shot. The entire first two scenes are so contained within that downstage rectangle of space. It’s not until Camillo’s entrance, seventeen minutes in, that I started thinking about what it actually looked like onstage.”
“It’s a completely different experience,” Eleanor agreed. “I’d be interested in hearing how they chose the edits for this multicamera version. There were some moments that worked––the closeup on the Shepherd when his son is getting beaten up, and the way they filmed Autolycus interacting with the audience. But at other times, I missed the larger, full-stage camera.”
“See, I’m on the other end regarding closeups,” Gwen argued. “I didn’t want any. Especially during the final scene, with Hermione’s statue? Why bother cutting to closeups on her? It just ruins the illusion of it being a statue that comes to life.”
“Did you think it was actually a statue?” asked Dania, frowning. “I mean, it was so obviously really her.”
“Well, yeah, they’re not going to build a statue of the actress when it has to come to life,” Eleanor agreed.
Dania shook her head. “No, I mean within the world of the story,” she clarified. “I don’t think it was even a statue. I think it was actually Hermione, and they hid her away for sixteen years until the daughter returned.”
“How did they hide her away without Leontes noticing?” asked Gwen. “He asks to see her body during Act III, you’d think he’d notice if she was alive.”
“Well, I don’t have a better explanation!” Dania threw her hands up, distantly. “The plot of this one makes no sense at all, I figured a person disappearing for sixteen years was something that would happen in this universe.”
“It’s not Shakespeare’s best play,” Gwen stressed. “That’s agreed upon in the scholarship. The wild fluctuation of tone between acts is a problem that all modern versions need to address.”
“So did they?” Dania asked. “Because it mostly felt like they just…kept it jumping back and forth without ‘dealing’ with it at all.”
“Well, that’s a way of dealing with it,” Gwen suggested. “Leaning into it. Even during the parts where Autolycus is directly telling the audience ‘this is the funny part,’ there’s always a sense that the play could drift back into tragedy again.”
“Which it does!” Eleanor recalled. “Autolycus violently beats up the young shepherd, for no reason. Was it a commentary on immigration or something?”
“Something like that,” Dania said dismissively. “I was already disassociating by that point.”
“The production puts the audience on a knife’s edge, where the line between what’s funny and what’s tragic is really hard to discern,” Gwen said. “Now, I don’t know if that makes the production…altogether balanced, but––”
“It’s entirely unbalanced,” Dania stated. “And it’s confusing, too. Like, Leontes spends the whole first act being this masculine bomb threat, and then we’re supposed to feel happy for him because he gets his wife back in the end?”
“He adjusted,” Eleanor said. “Sixteen years of mourning will do things to a person.”
“Yeah, but who cares?” Dania stood and paced the room. “I didn’t care enough about him in Act I, why should I start caring in Act II? Besides, it’s the relationship between the daughter and the other prince that I care about. They seem to actually like each other.”
“I found a lot of thematic ideas to grab onto as I watched,” Gwen said. “There’s the obvious one about male rage and how it hurts everyone in the play, including Leontes himself. You also see that reflected in Polixenes, later in the story, though he does a better job of controlling it. There’s also a lot of questions being asked about parenthood and guardianship, how trauma from childhood gets passed down and what it means to give your children freedom.”
“Yeah, that’s a lot of interesting ideas, Gwen,” Dania smirked. “But do they do anything with them? Does it make the production better?”
“I see where Dania’s coming from.” Eleanor admitted. “In theory, the production has a lot going for it. Transitions, for one, are some of the smoothest I’ve ever seen. And the acting, when it’s not too broad, has so much backstory and active struggle to latch onto. But I’m with Dania in not entirely seeing that work come together into a production that’s…cohesive.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said, with a sigh. “Part of that is Cheek By Jowl’s style. They’re provocateurs. It’s shocking work that forces the audience to reconsider their own assumptions. But…I’ll admit that the telling of the story, the core element of theatricality inherent to the medium, may have gotten lost due to a focus on theory.”
“Which, like…” Dania said. “That can’t mean it’s good, right?”
“It’s hard to judge it based on a filmed version,” Gwen said. “Like Eleanor was saying before, one of the inherent pitfalls of film––especially with Cheek By Jowl’s work––is the loss of clear stage pictures. I’m sure the trial scene with Hermione has a very different feel when that projected video on the back wall is omnipresent, instead of just appearing in the shots where it’s in the background here.”
“Similarly, I praised the transitions, but I could only see part of them,” Eleanor admitted. “Everything about the way that box transforms into different locations, with the walls falling down and the benches moving around the stage, would feel less sparse if you weren’t watching it in closeups. You’d more immediately grasp the smallness of the characters, in contrast with the massive auditorium, when you can’t crop it out of the frame.”
“I’m still glad I saw it,” Gwen smiled. “Problems and all. While it would’ve been better to see it live, I can settle for a streamed production over nothing at all.”
“I mean, that might as well be the motto of the entire quarantine,” Eleanor joked. “It’s better than nothing at all.”
“Gotta keep the flame alive somehow.”
“Eh,” grumbled Dania. “I’m not a fan. There’s other productions that are streaming right now. I’d rather watch those. You know the Met Opera is streaming something new every day?”
“You watch opera?” asked Eleanor.
“I contain multitudes.”
Watch the livestreamed production of The Winter’s Tale here. Available until April 27th.
Image Source: TimeOut New York