“The Winter’s Tale” lurches from tragedy to comedy to romance, its schizophrenia cemented from scene one, when the infant prince of Sicilia ponders his choice of bedtime story: “Merry or sad shall it be? As merry as you will. A sad tale’s best for winter.” The play traditionally resists categorization, but the heart of Sam Mendes’ production is rooted firmly in pathos and sobriety, making Shakespeare’s act-four departure into boisterous pastoral revelry a rude interruption to the dramatic flow. While it doesn’t smooth out the unevenness, this elegant staging is so poignant in its sorrowful moods that the evening is both suspenseful and satisfying.
Playing in rep with “The Cherry Orchard” in New York before touring to multiple destinations including London, the production is the second entry in the Bridge Project’s inaugural season. The three-year, trans-Atlantic venture to revisit the classics in large-scale stagings mixing British and American actors is a joint undertaking of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic under Kevin Spacey’s leadership and Mendes’ Neal Street Prods.
There’s a great deal of beauty and majestic stagecraft on display here, from the stately economy of Anthony Ward’s set to the attention to detail in Catherine Zuber’s handsome costumes, the subtle shifts and delicate shadow play of Paul Pyant’s lighting and the dense textures of Paul Arditti’s soundscape, atmospherically embroidered with Mark Bennett’s music.
Then there’s Sinead Cusack’s Paulina, a flinty woman so impassioned by her love and loyalty to her queen that she’s fearless in challenging the irrational king, regardless of the ease with which he doles out dire punishments. Hers can be a strident voice of conscience, but Cusack gives Paulina a warm, transcendent authority, maintaining a beguiling hint of magic in her long-gestating plan to erase old injustices.
But the chief strength of this production, like “The Cherry Orchard,” is Simon Russell Beale’s lucid, insightful interpretation of a pivotal character. Based on nothing more than a twinge of jealousy, Leontes, King of Sicilia, condemns his friend and fellow monarch Polixenes of Bohemia (Josh Hamilton) to death and imprisons his pregnant wife Hermione (Rebecca Hall), charging her with adultery and treason. He then orders their newborn daughter to be dumped in the woods, refusing even to believe the Oracle when Apollo sends back word that both Hermione and Polixenes are blameless.
Mendes lays the groundwork for Leontes’ vicious spiral of paranoia by casting stocky Russell Beale against the younger, more willowy Hamilton and Hall, whose relaxed, affectionate body language with each other makes the churlish King’s suspicions somewhat justifiable. But it’s in the character’s sudden metamorphosis from bitter tyrant to humbled, grief-stricken penitent that Russell Beale finds the stirring soul in all this rocky drama. With Leontes believing his wife and children to be dead as a result of his insane accusations, his profoundly affecting tragedy approaches Lear-like dimensions. However, in all but his most tormented scenes, Russell Beale injects sly touches of humor — in his delivery, his movements, his reflective asides to the audience — that help plant the seeds for Shakespeare’s abrupt switch to comedic mode.
Hall, who was a lovely Rosalind in her father Peter Hall’s “As You Like It” at BAM a few years back, makes a slightly shrill martyr here. But there’s no doubting the dignity and honor of her Hermione, and her bruising treatment makes for moving drama. Hamilton is a little tentative in the early scenes, but he powers up later on when Polixenes becomes a wrathful father, his unreasoning rage echoing that of Leontes. And Paul Jesson brings a nice, understated nobility to Camillo, the councilor torn between his duty to the king and his moral integrity.
The play’s awkward passage from tragedy to comedy is initially oiled by some smart transitional choices: The design team’s graceful shift from the solemnity of a royal court in mourning to the stormy desert of Bohemia; Mendes’ vivid staging of the famous scene in which nobleman Antigonus (Dakin Matthews) is attacked by a bear while depositing the infant princess in the woods; and the mischievous wit of Richard Easton, doubling as the old shepherd who finds and raises her, and as Father Time, fast-forwarding the tale by 16 years.
But when the rustic romp gets going, it’s hard not to resent its sudden intrusion on all the tense drama that precedes it. With a trio of musicians playing washboard, fiddle and guitar onstage, the scenes are nothing if not lively, notably a bawdy fertility dance with the participants sporting balloon breasts and phalluses. And Mendes has allowed Ethan Hawke to fish aggressively for laughs, channeling Bob Dylan/Tom Waits while playing itinerant rascal Autolycus as a folkie troubadour; the audience laps it up.
Mendes spends more time laying on visual or comic flourishes than finding ways to integrate this radical tonal detour into the larger tapestry. But the most nagging weakness in these scenes is the pallid impression left by Florizel (Michael Braun), prince of Bohemia, and Perdita (Morven Christie), the exiled princess raised as a humble shepherdess. Their obstructed romance remains a half-baked fairy tale, and the couple’s galvanizing pragmatism regarding their right to love never acquires enough urgency. Christie’s Perdita, in particular, fades into the crowd, failing to embody the intended forces of springtime, rebirth and spirituality.
It takes the return to Sicilia to regain momentum, but just as Leontes finds redemption, the graceful handling of the play’s final act, in which families and friendships are restored, wipes away the inconsistencies of the overlong pastoral interlude. And when earthy enchantress Paulina brings her lovingly commissioned “statue” of Hermione to life, the rapture that ripples through the court spreads clear into the audience.