Sean Holmes’s alternately delicious and stomach-churning serving of The Winter’s Tale began with an act of ostentatiously conspicuous consumption. A table of four were all served with ortolans, the tiny bird eaten whole while wearing a towel over one’s head. The consumption of ortolans, as famously depicted in Succession (a show this production referenced more than once), is a marker of the truly filthy rich; the towel-wearing is also a ritual which draws attention to itself even as it purports to a kind of modesty or recognition of shame. Those who eat the ortolan in this way talk of it as one of the most delicate of delicacies, something that only those with the most refined of palettes can appreciate. But the alignment of connoisseurship, conspicuousness, and ethical ambiguity worked to trouble notions of taste and reliability. As in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover – or, more recently, The Menu – being able to take something in and being able to appreciate it were rarely aligned.
The candles of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse illuminated a lavish private dining room, with reeded-glass door upstage leading to a panelled corridor, and a designer table set for dinner. Like the ‘family’ dining room over which Logan Roy presides in Succession, this may have been a home but it was still a power centre, with a robotically professional server allotted to each diner, and tasting courses brought in to the sounds of a string duo in the gallery above and served with clockwork efficiency. At this table, the upstage position was taken by John Lightbody, who looked relaxed in a burgundy suit that was close to the colours worn by Bea Segura’s Hermione, towards whom he leaned familiarly. Lightbody was sat opposite Mamillius (George Robinson at this performance), who mimicked his movements, the two smiling in play. It was a jolt to realise that Lightbody, who looked so at ease in this place, was not Leontes but Polixenes. Leontes (Sergo Vares) sat at the stage left table edge, quietly concentrating on his food, unobtrusive in his own home. While the production never openly suggested that Hermione and Polixenes were having an affair, Leontes’ presence on the sidelines in this establishing image laid the tablework for the sense of resentment that fuelled what followed.
The whole of the production’s first half, up until the deaths of Mamillius and Hermione, was played out around this dining table (not dissimilarly to Cheek by Jowl’s legendary production of Ubu Roi), setting up the production’s main structural metaphor about food (and presumably pairing it well with Titus Andronicus, with which this production shared a repertory season). Vares’s performance was one of quiet Baltic reserve, his white shirt, narrow spectacles and grey suit trousers making him almost inconspicuous next to the more gregarious Polixenes, and as he focused on his tiny portions of food, he was all control. But as he began to pull away from the table as his jealousy took over, he began abandoning both table etiquette and appreciation of food. While Camillo (Beruce Khan) and Polixenes made their plans, the three of them moved about the table: Leontes was obsessively polishing off the food that everyone else had left there, while Polixenes and Camillo moved anxiously to give him space. The slippery spatial reality of the table – which initially occupied a naturalistic space in which everyone was aware of one another, and then gradually became a more fluid focal point for overlapping actions – allowed Vares to use the food to slowly start exceeding acceptable parameters for dignity. By the time of the ‘trial’, Leontes and Hermione sat at either ends of the table, with a single burger in a plastic case each. Leontes tucked into his wholeheartedly, while Hermione looked desperately at him as she mangled the burger in her hands while telling him that ‘for conspiracy, / I know not how it tastes’. If Leontes ate without relish, Hermione rejected the meal altogether.
Leontes’ indiscriminate consumption was matched by increasingly perverse disruption of the space (this, along with the puce-green walls of the dining room, was what evoked Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu more than anything). At first his movements were restrained; sitting next to Camillo, a plain-speaking Geordie, the acerbic Leontes kicked at him, mimicking the descriptions of paddling palms and touching feet that he claimed to see in Hermione and Polixenes. Vares’s long limbs became crucial to his reaching across space, creating touch and uncomfortable intimacy as he placed his cheek next to that of the freaked-out Camillo, or flailed his arms in the air, or stretched out his legs. Where earlier he had sat, confined and small, at one end of the table, now he reached out and claimed that space as his own, while his servants stood in the corners of the stage, trying not to react. Leontes’ unquestioned power again evoked Succession; however weird his behaviour became, others would not challenge him; by the time night fell, he took off all his clothes apart from vest and shorts, and curled himself up in the middle of the table, a self-conscious possession of the table that began to offer himself up as the final course.
Around Leontes, oppositional forces began to gather. Early in his jealous ramblings, a low growling could be heard offstage; when Mamillius told his mother ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’, the silhouette of a Bear appeared behind the frosted glass of the upstage door; by the time Mamillius appeared to his father to report his own sickness, the Bear – an upright figure wearing a tuxedo, and moving politely about the space – entered the stage. This ominous presence inevitably prompted laughs, but the absurdism was part and parcel of the production’s heightened sense of reality. Later, out in the Globe itself, the Bear came for Antigonus (Colm Gormley) like a fixer, moving relentlessly towards the man like Michael Myers. That chase was allowed to become overtly comic, with Antigonus appearing from a variety of entrances on the Globe stage and hiding in plain sight as the Bear hunted him down. This Bear, the ultimate symbol of indiscriminate consumption, eventually had its own head presented on a platter in the production’s final tableau, somewhat ambivalently suggesting that its tasteless impulses had been contained – though more on that later.
The focalization of the action of Sicilia on the family environment led to a very stripped-down first half. While Cleomenes turned up in act five as a priest, these characters were otherwise cut; Hermione, meanwhile, was left completely unattended, never even sharing the stage with her only ally, Nadine Higgin’s Paulina. Segura’s Hermione felt to me displaced in preference for a focus on Leontes; with her frustration with Mamillius cut, the character functioned more as a presence for Leontes to fixate on. Within this, Segura did fine work communicating her personal confidence and integrity; she calmly left the stage after Leontes’ initial accusations, and maintained her dignity even in the undignified circumstances of the trial. Leontes’s claims of due process were bunk; he presented one of his attendants with an empty napkin when telling her to read the summons, forcing her to improvise the accusations against Hermione. Hermione, everything stacked against her, remained laser-focused on Leontes, trying to break through to him, but failing throughout. On the news of Mamillius’s death, she took herself offstage, and her screams were only heard belatedly.
Paulina watched the trial from the pit. From a casting point of view, it felt marked that the only dark-skinned Black actor in the ensemble was playing Paulina, a role that is so often given to a Black woman, and risks thus fulfilling the stereotype of Angry Black Woman (on this note, casting oddly ran rigidly along gender lines apart from Sarah Slimani’s Florizel, and the race of actors had no clear connection along family lines or obvious interpretive significance, making this a semiotically difficult set of castings to parse for intentionality; the Succession allusions at least suggested a skewering of a particular kind of white elite privilege). Higgin’s performance, though, was characterised by firmness rather than anger, by plain-speaking amid a milieu of pretension and avoidance. She also developed an intimate relationship with Antigonus which, better than most productions, communicated the fact of their marriage; it was Antigonus who tried to push her out of the way, a brutal response to her gently placing her hand on his face, appealing to him even though he appeared unable to respond in front of his powerful employer.
The dining table was left in disarray, and as the audience were evacuated for the interval, Paulina and Leontes were left sat at the table, stunned at the news of Hermione’s death, she toying with Mamillius’s toy bear. The high-concept staging did mean that the report of Hermione’s and Mamillius’s death felt abrupt, and Vares’s choice to respond by clamming up in almost catatonic shock felt anticlimactic, but appropriately so. This was a cold, brutal end to the first half, and when the production returned to Sicilia for act five, Leontes and Paulina were still sitting there in shock – only now without a table, and instead with a fallen chandelier and a projector showing grainy images of Hermione in her youth.
But before then, the production’s main gimmick had to come into play, as the audience relocated to the Globe theatre – on the wettest day of the year in England so far, with snow on roofs in London – for Bohemia. Just after we re-settled, Antigonus arrived, carrying Perdita in her travel cot. The Sam Wanamaker audience, of course, barely made an impression in the much more vast Globe, and so Smart and Holmes had designed a long temporary stage that sat in the middle of the Globe pit, with the main stage only used for a couple of sequences – Camillo and Polixenes planning to visit the sheep-shearing, and Antigonus’s farcical flight from the Bear, as well as Time’s visitation. With the set and stage drenched in rain, this Bohemia was reminiscent of Cheek by Jowl’s similarly rainy Irish version in their 2015-2017 production -a ramshackle set-up, decorated with fairy lights and lit with workers’ floods that offered some welcome warmth as well.
The chance to use two spaces was, thankfully, not a gimmick, but beautifully integrated into the production’s overarching concept. Rather than an elite dining table, this Bohemia was centered around an extended series of dilapidated trestle tables, where people could gather to commune in the open air. Rather than being an exclusive meal attended by formal waiters, here the table was expansive, welcoming in a community chorus made up of performers from the Soldiers’ Arts Academy. Rather than food being carefully apportioned out, here people approached Perdita (Jacoba Williams), who shared what seemed to be a hallucinogenic drink with everyone, bringing them into community with one another (and leaving Camillo grinning gormlessly from the effects, while Polixenes carefully threw his away). And rather than the diners being stifled by convention, here the large chorus performed joyous, ritual dances. Accents and cultural traditions were a grab-bag rather than consistent to any location – the Welsh Clown (Samuel Creasey) and Irish Shepherd (Gormley) both had massive mullets, Florizel and Perdita were joined in a ribbon-binding ceremony, and the dances while wearing animal skull helmets drew from any number of pagan traditions. But in many ways, the avoidance of any clear aesthetic or rules was what provided the relief from the stifling environment of Sicilia.
A very cut-down Bohemia sequence managed to crowbar in most of the plot, though the sheer busy-ness of what was happening onstage meant that Florizel and Perdita’s romance felt rather sidelined. Instead, Bohemia was presided over by the finest Autolycus I’ve ever seen, Ed Gaugham. Falling somewhere between music-hall, Delboy Trotter, and Ian Dury, Gaugham’s Autolycus was a Cockney hustler who shamelessly pulled the audience into his schemes. He held up lyric cards to get the audience whooping along to his sung-spoken folk skiffle of a self-introduction, he made fun of his own conventions (‘I’m an entirely new character, you’ve not seen me before’), and he improvised freely. His ballads told the stories of The Godfather and Breaking Bad; his sense of the absurdity of the revelations in act five was compared to the absurdity of leaving a functional European Union (the joke landed flatter than I expected; in the middle of the current energy and food crisis, Brexit has increasingly become no laughing matter); and his lines were suffused throughout with commentary and contemporary allusions that made this Autolycus unusually coherent, especially when making the decision to improvise as a courtier and threaten all kinds of dire punishments for the Clown and Shepherd (including having to perform at an outdoor theatre on the wettest day of the year).
Jokes aside, it was the sense of community around the table that emerged most strongly in Bohemia. The chorus thumped the table together in support of the engaged couple; the Shepherd looked after his flock; the lovers – even if Perdita looked very uncomfortable in her pink voluminous dress – were able to express themselves warmly and publicly; everyone was able to perform (Mopsa and Dorcas’s trio with Autolycus was a particular highlight of a set-piece, a full-throated folk ballad delivered as a polished performance). Polixenes and Camillo were dressed in fur hats and long green trenchcoats (the Shepherd described them as Russian spies), and their attempts to be unobtrusive at the edges were quickly scuppered, as even the audience were pulled into dancing with the revellers. But Polixenes’ fury, which brought the table to silence, was a reminder of the ease with which communality could be destroyed.
On the return to Sicilia, things were wrapped up surprisingly quickly, especially as it was Autolycus alone who described the various reunions, in another part-Shakespeare, part-improvised, all-hilarious monologue that never sacrificed his own awe at events. The Clown and Shepherd got to emerge in full eighties splendour, with mullets resplendent and shirts open to their navels, signifying their new status. But the emphasis here was on the sobriety of this new Sicilia. Leontes was once again unobtrusive, almost whispering in his grief as he gazed upon images of Hermione, though he still showed his old self as he shouted at Paulina to stop reminding him of the past. The emergence of the so-young Florizel and Perdita, though, brought him back to himself as he embraced the young people.
The final scene felt like the one least in line with the overall conceit. The Wanamaker was plunged into absolute darkness as Paulina led the court through the corridors, allowing for a nice effect as Hermione’s statue was revealed as if it had magically appeared in the centre of the stage, facing upstage. The awe of the statue was somewhat diminished by cluttered blocking here, obscuring the faces of both the onlookers and the statue, and with Paulina providing the only light with her handheld candelabra, the scene felt rather too dim to achieve its effects (until, as she awoke, overhead electric lighting started illuminating the stage, which then made the candles inefficacious). The interpretive surprise here was that Hermione embraced Leontes with her full body, offering a warmth and apparent forgiveness that clashed with the distant formality of even their pre-jealousy situation. And immediately, Leontes began assuming his old confidence. He turned to face the audience and began making pronouncements, silencing Paulina by sending Camillo over to her; the two stood next to one another, somewhat blank. Hermione greeted her daughter, but the two then remained frozen as Leontes organised everyone; Polixenes moved closer to Hermione, reaching out a hand to her shoulder, and Leontes let out a shout reminiscent of his old ravings, before reining himself in. The tone was one of sombreness which clashed with the emotional embrace Hermione had given Leontes; the Clown and Shepherd then entered carrying the Bear’s head on a platter even as the assembled company formed a formal photograph tableau. The image here jarred with what had come before, seeming to pull in several different directions – forgiveness and concern for the future, reunion and distance, absurdism and cold reality – all at once, in ways that felt unproductively ambivalent, especially after such a Leontes-oriented production. But in many ways, an unsatisfactory ending to a meal that continually challenged ideas of satisfaction felt appropriate. The excess of a production that needed two theatres to contain it, and the satire of social rituals that determine what behaviour is appropriate or not, regardless of its rightness or the harm it causes, felt well-realised in an ending that served up to Leontes exactly what he wanted, but left unclear whether he’d be able to appreciate it, or even taste it.