This is Yolanda's third blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which she talks about dancing in the show, voice work and the ending of the play.
Transcript of Podcast
The news of the week: we’ve been concentrating on dancing. We’ve been going through scenes and fine tuning as it were, but we’ve done a lot of dancing. We’re going to have a dance at the beginning (towards the end of the first scene) and then there's the dance that the shepherds do in the sheep shearing scene and the final jig which original practices productions always have at the Globe.
We decided to have a dance in the scene when we first see Leontes and Hermione and Polixenes together because we wanted to emphasize what a happy place the Sicilian court is before jealousy strikes. At the very beginning Archidamus speaks about how generous the Sicilians are; he's already getting worried that when the Sicilians come over to Bohemia, his court won’t be able to entertain them in a similar way:
We cannot with such magnificence – in so rare – I know not what to say – We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses (unintelligent of our insufficience) may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us. [I.i]
The Bohemians feel completely overwhelmed by the kindness of their hosts – he's saying ‘We’ll put you to sleep, so when you wake up you can’t accuse us of not having given you a good time!’ That gives us the impression that the Sicilian court is a joyful place to be; Leontes is very generous and there's all sorts of things going on to entertain the Bohemians.
We thought it would be a good idea to meet the characters in a really happy time. Everybody gets on well, whilst the king is happy there's a very democratic feel and the queen is allowed to be herself… she gets along with everybody and she's asked by her husband to pay special attention to Polixenes. She does that and is accused of having an affair with him. So we decided to have a dance in that scene to help build up a festive atmosphere that we can really knock down later on.
The dance starts off with the queen trying to teach Polixenes a very slow courtly dance and then Leontes comes in with bag pipes. That brings it into a really big Bohemian dance which is much more like Cossack dancing. Everybody joins in so it's boisterous, and the rest of the scene is about Polixenes trying to come out of that: ‘No I’ve got to leave.’ The steps for that are quite complicated but we’re getting there slowly.
Leontes talks about Hermione and Polixenes ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’ [I.ii], What I believe and what we’ve discussed is that he's seeing what he wants to see. In the same way, he picks out only the words he wants to hear in the next scene with Camillo, after his jealousy has struck. Camillo tells Leontes that Polixenes has agreed to stay in Sicilia ‘To satisfy your Highness and the entreaties/ Of our most gracious mistress.’ Leontes chooses the word ‘satisfy’ and does not hear what Camillo is saying:
Th’ entreaties of your mistress? Satisfy?
Let that suffice.
Then Leontes says that Hermione and Polixenes have been leaning cheek to cheek and pinching fingers, holding hands and kissing… at that time, people were much more tactile than perhaps we would give them credit for today. There's an account from an Italian visitor in the 17th Century who commented that the British were extraordinarily mercurial and apparently the French used to say that the English kissed too much! So what was considered proper behaviour within a society was very changeable. Hermione gets on very well with Polixenes; he's a nice man, but she's with him because he's Leontes’ best friend. She adores her husband and what she's trying to do is to make his best friend feel comfortable. When Polixenes says the time has come for him to return to his family and responsibilities in Bohemia, Leontes begs him to stay for one more week. Then Leontes asks Hermione to help out, and she does exactly what he wants her to do. Immediately she succeeds, but he takes it the wrong way and makes a mountain out of a mole hill. Polixenes says right at the beginning that he's been there nine months, which just gives enough time for a baby if Polixenes and Hermione had an affair straight away but of course they haven’t had an affair – Leontes adds up four and five and ends up with fifty-six.
Instead of showing exactly what Leontes describes between Hermione and Polixenes, we’ve opted to behave as normal: we’re holding hands, I might go and kiss him sometimes, and grab him by the hand to lead him and I’m always smiling and having a good time with him, but I’m not doing anything that would look suspicious to an outside eye. That means Leontes chooses to see evil in innocence. I know some productions highlight Polixenes and Hermione doing these things in order to show you what's happening in Leontes’ mind but the fact is that it's not happening at all. That's just what he thinks they’re doing, and his mind is warped by jealousy. I think if you see if Polixenes and Hermione doing those things, even if it's to show you Leonte's viewpoint, then everybody in the audience will think that they are having an affair. They’re not, and I think that's clear if they behave normally in the first Act.
I find it very interesting that at the end Hermione will not look at Polixenes. She doesn’t know whether it's going to cause another rumpus! Will I have to go back to prison or be killed? Also there's embarrassment because Hermione and Polixenes share that little history so the friendship loses the innocence that it had before. When Leontes says to her ‘look on my brother’ [V.iii.147] I think she does look, although she doesn’t say anything to either of them. Then Leontes apologizes to both of them. Now I think that they’ve both had time – sixteen years – for forgiveness to be possible. All the time that she's been in hiding and waiting for her daughter to appear, he's been going to her shrine every single day to pray and apologize for what he's done. Sixteen years is a long time, enough time for him to think about his actions.
It's very strange that nobody in the plays says ‘oh you know he's given to these rash fits.’ His jealousy comes out of too much love for Hermione, I think, but it's a real oddity. It seems that he hasn’t been jealous before. As it's the first time, I don’t know whether his character has changed by the end of the play, but he certainly is repentant. When I first read the play, I wondered 'How can she even look at him after what he's done?' Now I think the only reason she can do that is because she's heard him repent every night for the last 16 years; she knows that he's repentant and her daughter has returned.
She says ‘I have preserved myself to see the issue.’ If Perdita had not been found, then Hermione would not have come out of hiding. We discussed this in rehearsal and from my personal point of view, the question is how can you go back to a man who has given your daughter away because of his feelings at a particular moment? She could be dead: the Oracle's prophesy is the only reason Hermione knows she isn’t dead. There would be too much resentment for her to return to Leontes if the child had not been found.
As it is, she's got a family again so she's able to return. Her son is dead, possibly from heartbreak. But Mamillius must have died before the Oracle's news for it to be announced just at the moment Leontes calls the prophesy ‘falsehood’. So perhaps her son would have died come what may. That's a tiny little thing that just makes playing the scene slightly easier for me. Those are the details you look at to find ways of playing it.
Voice: Sylvia the Fair
In our Voice sessions with Stewart [Pearce, Master of Voice], we’ve been looking at opening up the vowels and how the consonants work. It sounds bizarre but Stewart says that the vowels are the ‘inside’ of the picture and the consonants are the frame. And its true because the vowels are open and you can actually make the sound of the vowels – just with the breath, whereas you have to stop or ‘intrude’ on the breath to form consonants. For example, you can make the sound ‘ahhh’ just by breathing out. Whereas you can’t make a ‘b’ sound with just a breath can you? It's a bilabial plosive: the breath explodes from your lips to make that sound. We looked at different poems and read them through with really exaggerated vowel sounds. Then we read them again with really exaggerated consonants. One of the poems was a little bit naughty – ‘Sylvia the Fair, In the Bloom of Fifteen’ by John Dryden. Try saying it with exaggerating vowels then consonants!
Apollo is painted on the back of the stage, by the Musicians’ Gallery. If you’re facing the audience, behind you to the right is Apollo and behind you to the left is Mercury. Apollo is for inspiration and Mercury is for eloquence. People came to hear a play in Shakespeare's time, so the sound of the words is very important. Elizabethans felt that when people spoke well, it was like nectar coming out of their mouths – it was a good and beautiful thing, which required inspiration and eloquence. Shakespeare uses sound in so many ways – assonance, onomatopoeia, rhymes – in order to get a very definite feeling across to the audience using words themselves. The way that you place certain vowels and particular consonants will give you a very definite feeling. For instance, if we start exaggerating the vowel sounds at the beginning of that little poem ‘Sylvia the Fair’: Syl-viiiiiiiiiiiiiiaaaaaaaaa, the faaaaaaaaaa-iiiiiiiiiir, iiiiiiiiiiin theeee blooooooooooom of fiiiiiiifteeeeeeeeen… okay, it sounds ridiculous but if you really exaggerate the whole thing like that, you get a really nice feeling of a lazy summer afternoon with bees buzzing around. The sounds immediately give you a setting for what's happening. If you concentrate on the consonants instead, you get a very different feeling. I’ll take a couple of lines from further down:
By their praying and whining,
And clasping and twining,
And panting and wishing,
And sighing and kissing,
And sighing and kissing so close.
It sounds much more penetrating and aggressive, just concentrating on the ‘k’ and ‘s’ sounds. The sounds can take you to the meaning of the poem; without even hearing the words, you know exactly what it's about!
Feminine and Masculine Sounds
Stewart also said that if we looked at sounds in terms of archetypes, then the vowels are considered more feminine while the consonants are considered more masculine. We did an exercise where we split the group in to ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ sides; the girls stressed the vowel sounds in the poem and the boys stressed the consonants. Stewart explained that the vowels are very open whilst consonants are more thrusting, and that contrast really came across when we heard both sides read the poem. It's so clever, the way that sounds give you the sense!
Against the Norm
Generally I’m feeling good about things – not stressed or nervous or anything like that. I’ve realised that I always go through a bit of a panic stage during rehearsals; I haven’t got there yet but I’m sure that it will come! At the moment I’m enjoying experimenting with the part and sometimes that means going against my norm. The language for Hermione is very powerful, very strong. But Leontes says of her that she never chided, she never blamed him. As the language is so powerful, it's easy to use it to attack but I’m trying to go against that instinct and to find ways that Hermione can say what she needs to say without chiding. I mean, she's also a very fiery woman so occasionally that passion comes out but I don’t want to be directed at him as an attack. One tiny example is the speech that begins ‘Sir, spare your threats’ in the Trial scene [III.ii]. I basically say ‘You’ve prevented me from seeing my son. You have thrown my daughter out and at this moment she could be dead. You called me a whore. You’ve taken me out of bed and into the open air when I’ve just given birth, which you wouldn’t do to the lowest of the low.’ At the end of all this, I say:
Now, my liege,
Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
That I should fear to die? Therefore proceed.
But yet hear this – mistake me not; no life
(I prize it not a straw), but for mine honor,
Which I would free – if I shall be condemn’d
Upon surmises (all proofs sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake), I tell you
’Tis rigor and not law.
I find that it's easy to say those lines aggressively; ‘yet hear this – mistake me not.’ But I don’t think she is doing that. It's quite strong: ‘Don’t get me the wrong way, listen to what I have to say.’ But I think what's she's actually saying is ‘Please hear me, don’t get me wrong – just listen to what I’ve got to say.’ The language gives you the strength. Hermione is a strong woman but I don’t think that's where she's coming from at this precise moment. So what I’m trying to do is find a way of approaching those lines that doesn’t feel like an attack or command. She really wants to be understood, so perhaps her response would be measured rather than violent? So that's my challenge right now. These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.