by Lynn on February 4, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Growling Bear
Exit, pursued by a bear

At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, Ont.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco
Cast: Brent Carver
Mark Crawford
Charlie Gallant
Patrick Galligan
Michelle Giroux
Roy Lewis
Callum McAlister
Tom McCamus
George Meanwell
Sarena Parmar
Lucy Peacock
Robert Persichini

A vibrant, thoughtful, beautifully acted and directed production of this always interesting play.

NOTE: Because I was away in England last week, I could not attend the opening Jan. 28. I saw the performance on Feb.3.

The Story. King Leontes (of Sicilia) and his queen Hermione are hosting Leontes’ boyhood friend King Polixenes (of Bohemia). Leontes is a doting husband to Hermione and a loving father to their son Mamilius. Hermione is pregnant with their second child.

Leontes and Polixenes are fast friends. Hermione and Polixenes are fast friends too, since they have Leontes in common. But now after a stay of nine months (NINE MONTHS!!!!!) Polixenes feels he should go home. He has an infant son and wants to see him. Leontes wants him to stay longer. Polixenes says he has to go. Leontes asks Hermione to convince their friend to stay and she does. Leontes is startled at the speed at which his friend changes his mind. He begins imagining all manner of things: that Hermione has cuckolded him with Polixenes; that Polixenes is the father of the baby Hermione is carrying etc.

Everyone in court, including Hermione and Polixenes, are shocked at this quick change in Leontes. Leontes is adamant that his wife has been untrue with his friend and asks his courtier Camillo to kill Polixenes. Instead Camillo warns Polixenes of the death order and they both escape to Bohemia. Leontes sends Hermione to prison. She has the baby—a daughter. Paulina, a lady of the court, takes the baby to Leontes to try and convince him the baby is his. He will have none of it. He tells Antigonus, a member of court and Paulina’s husband, to take the baby to a desolate place and leave her there in the wild elements to die. Antigonus sets out to do it.

In the meantime, the oracle of Apollo states that Hermione is innocent as is Polixenes and that Leontes is a jealous tyrant and that “the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost is not found.” But the discord between his parents is too much for Mamilius and he dies of heartache. When Hermione learns this she too ‘dies’. Leontes is bereft at what he has caused.

Antigonus takes the baby to a desolate spot nowhere near Sicilia; leaves a box of gold and jewellery with the baby, and exits pursued by a bear that kills him. The baby is found by an Old Shepherd and his son and raised by them. And that’s only the half of it.

The Production. The production plays at the new compact space of The Coal Mine Theatre. The audience sits on four sides of the theatre with the ‘groundlings’ sitting on pillows on the floor along one wall. Designer Steve Lucas has created a sturdy tree branch that spreads over one wall of the space. The action takes place on a raised rectangular wood platform. Props and furniture are spare. Actors move them on and off the stage. Musician George Meanwell provides evocative music for the production and he plays Time linking both acts.

Director Graham Abbey has taken licence to shift a few scenes and speeches around and cut scenes, giving those speeches to other characters. For example, instead of beginning the play in happy times when Polixenes says he has to go home, Abbey starts the production in the middle of the play. He creates a scene in this modern dress production, showing Leontes doing penance, showing him watching home videos of his wife and son in happier times. Paulina and the court say he has grieved enough. Leontes disagrees. Then the production begins at the beginning of the play.

Abbey has cut the scene where the court hears the pronouncement of the oracle of Apollo declaring among other things that Hermione is innocent and that Leontes is a jealous tyrant. In that cut scene the speech “the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost is not found” is now given to Paulina who says it towards the end of the play when Hermione’s and Leontes’ lost daughter, Perdita, is found.

I’m not sure what this cutting and switching achieves in a play that seems to work well as written. Abbey is not a reckless director but one who is thoughtful, careful and intelligent. Still it is interesting trying to figure out what Abbey’s intentions are by this cutting and shifting.

That said, Abbey’s direction of his expert cast beautifully establishes the loving and doting relationships of Leontes for Hermione and she for him, before he ‘lost it’. Leontes and Hermione obviously love and dote on their son Mamilius and the boy is so loved he can be carefree and impish.

As Leontes, Tom McCamus is boyish and watchful. He is decisive and yet when he snaps he is on the edge of control. Michelle Giroux plays Hermione with a graceful regalness. Her dealing with Mamilius is tenderly maternal. And she treats Polixenes with respect, friendly affection and open hearted warmth. She shows him the affection her husband shows him. Leontes and Polixenes are boyhood friends. As men they unashamedly hug and josh each other as true friends do. As Polixenes, Patrick Galligan is courtly, trusting and has an easy-going charm that speaks volumes. It’s easy to see how these three get along. But then Leontes snaps and those relationships change.

Paulina is a woman of the court and the conscience of the play. As played by Lucy Peacock, she is a staunch supporter of the wronged Hermione and she will not let Leontes soon forget his treachery. When she announces that Hermione is ‘dead’ she attacks the devastated Leontes with such fierceness, despair, anger, and desperation, it’s chilling. This is the most passionate and emotional playing of this moment I’ve ever seen in a production of the play. McCamus as Leontes allows himself to be beaten because at this point the character deserves it. Peacock brings a steely resolve, dignity and even tenderness to Paulina.

There are so many lovely directorial touches that Abbey adds to his wonderful production. In a scene change Patrick Galligan carries a bench off stage and passes McCamus (Leontes). They pause and look at each other. This is a moment when Leontes looks as if he’s seen the ‘ghost’ of his friend, and in a way he has. The slippery rogue Autolycus is played with impish delight by Brent Carver. Robert Persichini as the Old Sherpherd and Mark Crawford as the Young Shepherd make good comedic work of discovering the abandoned baby who would grow up to be Perdita. Abbey suffuses his production with emotion but not sloppy sentiment. He and his gifted cast have created an exquisite gem of a production.

Comment. How do you solve a problem like Leontes? How do you explain that tyrant of a man? How do you solve a problem like Leontes—jealous, suspicious and damned. Many scribes tie themselves up in knots trying to explain Leontes’ jealousy. There is nothing that he says or does that suggests that this jealousy is anything but a momentary aberration. Similarly there is nothing any other character says about him that suggests this has happened before. Indeed, Hermione, who knows her husband so well, says when he accuses her of having the affair, “…how this will grieve you /When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that /You thus have published me!” She knows he will be heartsick when he realizes his error. And he is.

How to explain this strange behaviour then? From a woman’s point of view—mine—it’s simple. His wife is pregnant. In a relationship when the woman is pregnant so is the man. It’s different for him, but it’s no less emotional, off-centre, and hormonally fraught. His emotions are close to the surface when he sees his friend and his wife so close I sense he just wants to say, “Get your hands off my woman.”

If there is a more intriguing question it’s about Polixenes. The man has been at the court of Leontes and away from home for nine months. In that time Polixenes finds out his own wife is pregnant and eight months into the trip has had a son. Does Polixenes go home immediately? No. He stays another month. Now that’s something to ponder—what’s with that guy? That’s for another time.

Graham Abbey is both the director of this beautiful production and the artistic director of the Groundling Theatre Company, the spanking new company that is producing The Winter’s Tale at the Coal Mine Theatre. The company has been four years in the planning. This production was so worth the wait. More please, and soon.

A Groundling Theatre Company production presented by Coal Mine Theatre:

Opened: January 28, 2016.
Closes: February 20, 2016.
Cast: 12; 9 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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