This is Peter's eighth blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which he talks about changes that have been made in reponse to the preview shows, the relationship between performers on stage and the audience in the Globe theatre, and the upcoming Press Night.
Transcript of Podcast
Previews & Changes
We’ve done all our Previews now. The show's running time is down to two hours, 40 minutes (including a 20 minute interval) – very quick. John was keen to get it down under three hours and he's done that comfortably. Having had a day off, today's performance went like a train! It's good that the story gallops along and our audiences seem to stick with it. As far as changes during previews go... I mentioned last time that we had a chat with Mark [Rylance] after our first preview. One thing he talked about was the need (because of where we placed the interval) for the audience not to feel overloaded with new information at the end of the first half. As an audience member, I know when I’ve stood for a while I’m not always as receptive – you start thinking about having a drink or using the rest rooms. It's better if the audience feel as if they’re coming to the end of a movement as they reach the interval, like in a symphony, whilst being given enough new information to anticipate the second half.
One way John tried to get that balance was to overlap scenes: one scene comes hard on the heels of another. You get the feeling that Antigonus’ arrival in Bohemia [3.3] comes straight out of the trial scene in Sicilia [3.2] because Edward [Antigonus] speaks sharp on the end of Paul's [Leontes] last line - rather than everybody going off stage after the trial, more characters coming on and then the first line of Act 3, scene 3. Often people think The Winter's Tale feels like two different plays because the sections in Bohemia and Sicilia can seem quite separate; those overlaps lace the story together and move the action along quickly. We worked in more of that crossover during the previews. We’ve now got one between Antigonus’ death (with the bear) and the Old Shepherd's discovery of Perdita. Originally Antigonus was grabbed by the bear, then the curtain closes, then a door opens and the Old Shepherd comes on… John said ‘Why not just be brave about it?’ Now the Old Shepherd arrives on stage as Antigonus disappears in the arms of the bear.
More sound cues have gone in to underline the thread of the story. The clamour of the storm that Antigonus speaks about in Act 3, scene 3 starts way back in the Trial scene [3.2], when the Messenger comes on and tells Leontes that Mamillius is dead. There's a rumble of thunder and Leontes says ‘This is Apollo's anger’, then the thunder rumbles through until you’ve got a full-blown storm (loudest when Perdita is left and Antigonus is eaten by the bear). Obviously the scenes are set in different countries, but it gives a sense of the thunder as Apollo's anger at these events, the chaos Leontes’ jealousy is causing. The thunder dies away through the shepherd's scene… but it also ties in with the snow effect in Time's speech; the weather actually has become quite a major feature in that part of the show. I think it helps to tie all those bits of plot, old and the new, together. As the Old Shepherd says to his son ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new born’ – there's the sense of something having finished and something else beginning.
We’ve tweaked lots of other little things – music cues, entrances, exits… it's all to make sure that the story continues to move all the time and you never feel dead air on stage. I think that's more important at the Globe than anywhere else; in an indoor theatre with lighting effects, a character can come on at the beginning of a scene into a new lighting state and have a moment of silence. Here you can’t do that. If somebody comes on and doesn’t speak, the audience don’t know what's going on. The words do so much work – they tell the audience ‘I can’t sleep’ or ‘These young people are running around causing trouble and hunting bears in ridiculous weather’. Unless you speak as you hit the stage, nobody knows why you are coming on and you don’t grab focus.
Relationship with the Audience
I’ve been hissed and booed a couple of times when I storm out of the sheep-shearing scene [4.4], after I’ve threatened Perdita and the Old Shepherd. Not from the yard; it sounded like it came from the middle gallery, which is interesting. The first time it happened I nearly jumped up and down with excitement. Although I’m a bit ambivalent about it too, because hopefully I’m playing Polixenes in a way that reveals his deep hurt at Florizel's betrayal. That's become much cleaner to me in performance; I kept thinking ‘Why is he so angry with Perdita?’ He calls her ‘a piece of excellent witchcraft’ and ‘enchantment’ because of the effect she has on Florizel… but I think also because of the effect she's had on him. She's snuck in under Polixenes’ guard and won him over. Then he realizes that Florizel is going to marry her come hell or high water, without even consulting his father, and I think the betrayal thing kicks in. Before he leaves the sheep-shearing, Polixenes warns Perdita:
If ever, henceforth, thou
These rural latches open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.
It's that ‘hoop his body with thy embraces’ … a hug is a very specific, loving gesture, and a kind of intimacy that Polixenes probably hasn’t had with Florizel since he was much smaller. As a dad, I dread the day when my kids don’t want to hug me, and I suddenly realised that he's desperate because he thinks he's lost his boy. We never meet Mrs. Polixenes. I think that maybe she died in childbirth; I get a very strong feeling that Polixenes is somebody who's alone in the world. He's lost his friend Leontes and he's terrified that Camillo will go back to Sicilia. When he realizes that he's lost Florizel to Perdita, she becomes the enemy. I think it's the hurt of it. He says to Florizel, ‘we’ll bar thee from succession/ Not hold thee of our blood’ and then repeats ‘no, not our kin’. I think at that point he realises what he's saying in the heat of the moment. He's disowned his son. It's a horrendous thing for a father to say, regardless of what the son has done. Barring a prince from succession is one thing, but disowning Florizel as his son is much more personal and primal. It's taken me eight weeks to realize the importance of it being gut-wrenching. Otherwise why would he be so furious? He could just say ‘Right, that's enough. Come with me. It's time you grew up and realized your responsibilities’ (a bit like Hal in Henry IV). That's been fantastic to discover in performance.
When I arrive at the sheep-shearing, I don’t want the audience to think ‘Oh, here's a hooded crow, a vulture circling.’ We’ve made Camillo much more enthusiastic than Polixenes about the dancing and feasting, so Polixenes does seem a bit more distant and reserved. He wants his friend to back him up, but when Florizel asks Perdita to marry him, Camillo says ‘This shows a sound affection.’ Polixenes must be thinking ‘What are you talking about?! You of all people should know that you shouldn’t be doing this!’ So there's a kind of riff there which helps feed the anger as well. I’m very aware of the audience, keeping an eye on focus; I don’t want what I’m doing to distract from the main focus in the scene, but I want the audience to register what's happening to Polixenes. It seems to work, because people laugh when Florizel refers to me as ‘ancient sir’ and at things like that, so they’re very aware of the dramatic irony of us both being in disguise, me knowing who he is and him not knowing who I am.
Once we get to the point in the sheep-shearing where I start accusing Perdita, I’m not so aware of the audience, but I am aware of a change in the atmosphere. Until that point, it's been jolly and fun, but then it does change and the hissing is one aspect of that. The audience also seem to grow very quiet: they realize the game's up for the lovers. And things get worse when the Old Shepherd turns to Perdita: ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this to me, you knew he was the prince.’ Parents and children… those situations really touch everybody because everybody is either a parent or a child or both and we’ve all had experiences that relate on some level. Actually for me, the parent-child rifts in the sheep-shearing scene make the last scene of the play even more moving: when I see Perdita kneeling at the feet of her statue-mother and saying ‘Let me kiss your hand,’ I’m really touched every night and I think the audience are too. The reconciliations are amazingly moving.
We’ve got our Press night soon. I actually quite like reading what the press have to say. I’ve always taken the view in the past that if you’re going to read reviews, you ought to read them all, then get angry if you want to get angry, get upset if you want to get upset, be joyous for 5 minutes (it only really lasts 5 minutes, or a day maybe) and then you’re back to doing a show. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We seem to be playing to very big houses and they seem to love it; that's the most important thing. I get a bit nervous on Press nights because there tends to be a bit of build-up; people are excited and cards and presents are handed out so there's a buzz that can put an edge on it – the danger is that those pressures can build up and distort the show, but I don’t think that's going to be a problem for us!
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.