Exit, pursued by a bear is the best-known stage direction in history. It’s a combination of absurdity and horror that’s entirely appropriate to the play that it appears in: The Winter’s Tale, now showing at The Old Vic as one half of The Bridge Project, directed by Sam Mendes.
Like that other late (and wintry) masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Shakespeare’s penultimate play is a story of obsessive sexual jealousy, played out in a world that is familiar, but not quite ours: there’s a shipwreck on the (nonexistent) coast of Bohemia, predictions from the Oracle at Delphi, and a statue that comes mysteriously alive. Its psychology — jealousy, fraudulence, romance — is accurate but magnified into obsession. And, like Eyes Wide Shut, its happy ending offers little sense of closure: the dead are still dead, and the emotions of the story dormant not extinct.
The heart of the play is Leontes, King of Sicilia (Simon Russell Beale). Leontes becomes convinced that Queen Hermione (a fragile, deeply touching Rebecca Hall) is sleeping with his boyhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Once the idea is fixed in his mind he’s impossible to dissuade, seeing everything that happens through the lens of betrayal:
There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour
I have said
She’s an adulteress; I have said with whom:
More, she’s a traitor and Camillo is
A federary with her, and one that knows
What she should shame to know herself
But with her most vile principal, that she’s
Sluiced? Bed-swerver? This is full-blooded tabloid language, and still shocks a contemporary audience. Despite Hermione’s pleas, Leontes cannot be dissuaded, and has her imprisoned, even when the Oracle proclaims her innocence. Worse, when she is discovered to be pregnant, he disowns the baby, and orders the child to be flung on a fire. By the end of the play’s first section, both Hermione and the Leontes’ son are dead, and the baby has been left to die, abandoned on the shoreline of Bohemia —
— only to be found by a passing shepherd. And here the play shifts gear entirely, into pastoral romantic comedy, full of mistaken identities and disguises, all ruled over by Autolycus (Ethan Hawke), a travelling con man. Mendes plays this as a kind of bluegrass festival — in this production the Sicilians are played by the English, the Bohemians by Americans — and for a while, as the characters sing and dance together, the production feels more enjoyable for the cast than it does for the audience. It’s a disconcerting shift in tone, one of the reasons why The Winter’s Tale is often seen as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. So what is Shakespeare up to here? He’s questioning the very nature of narrative, and displaying his mastery of the craft, pushing drama to its limits. He’s showing us our greed for story, and how, even when it’s gossamer-thin, our ability to empathise can make it real. Yes it’s artificial; yes it’s psychologically extreme, but the collaboration between author, actors and audience ensures that, even at its limits, drama works its magic on us.
In the final act of the play this is made literal, as Hermione, commemorated as a statue, comes to life again. Mendes, far from concealing the artifice of this, emphasises it: we see Hermione take up her position on the plinth during the scene change, and there’s no attempt to disguise her as a statue. Yet the moment of her animation is extraordinary, and her reconciliation with Leontes touching. Do we forgive Leontes? No. But do we want him to be happy? Oddly, even now, we do. Despite his shocking cruelty, despite their son’s death, despite the wasted years of both their lives, our human yearning for a happy ending transcends absurdity and horror. And maybe, looking at the world around us, that’s a start.