This is Peter's fifth blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which he talks about cuts made to the performance text, story-telling and the off-stage reunions of many of the characters.
Transcript of Podcast
Finding a Thread
Where are we now? We’re running bigger bits of the play together: the first two scenes (pretty much the whole of Act one), Act two, and also the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. Just this afternoon we did Act four, scene four, again – the sheep-shearing is like four scenes in one really – and tomorrow we’re going on to Act five. We’ve started tying up threads through each act and the play as a whole. The challenge for me is that we leave Polixenes at the end of Act one, scene two, when his world has been completely turned upside down by Leonte's accusations, and the next time you see him is sixteen years later… when he reappears in Act four, scene two, he tries to prevent Camillo returning to Sicilia and brings up the idea that Florizel has fallen in love with a shepherdess. That conversation is a kind of ‘catch-up’ on what's happened during the sixteen year interim, and it also moves the story into the next phase with Florizel and Perdita's romance – there's a lot to do in a short space of time! I need to tie up those stages in Polixenes’ journey.
There's an even shorter space of time to do that now because we’ve cut a lot of the scene [IV.ii]. The speech that begins ‘As thou lov’st me, Camillo’ is twenty-odd lines on the page and now it's down to three! Rather than saying ‘I feel awful about Leontes and the situation in Sicilia – it's all to be afresh lamented,’ I basically tell Camillo ‘Don’t go back to Sicilia and don’t talk about Sicilia.’ That tells the same story but in a different way. Instead of ‘filling in the gaps’, I think it shows that Polixenes has been hardened by what he suffered sixteen years ago. His abrupt manner speaks volumes without having to retell the story. Of course, that assumes people remember who Polixenes and Camillo are after two acts where they haven’t appeared. It's a bit of a gamble and we won’t really know whether it works until we see it in the context of a run of the whole play.
If it does work, it will really speed up the storytelling and that's fantastic. It does mean that I’ve got to take a slightly different angle on how I play Polixenes and what I think of the character overall. It makes him much fierier and quick-tempered, much more powerful in a way. He's much stronger with Camillo; instead of pleading with him, Polixenes simply tells him ‘Don’t go.’ The cuts change his character in that moment quite a lot, but that's good because it's a useful springboard into Act four, scene four – you can see where his fury comes from when he explodes at Florizel. We’ll see whether that particular thread works…
John [Dove, Master of Play] had an instinct about the cut in terms of the storytelling. Sometimes characters don’t have to spell everything out; playing the emotion of a situation tells the story in a more succinct way. At the beginning of rehearsals, John said that modern audiences understand storytelling in a different way. I think that, because of film as much as anything else, we do understand narrative differently – not necessarily any better than they did 400 years ago, but perhaps in a way that allows us to fill in the gaps.
In a film you can remove all the dialogue from a scene and tell the story in pictures. It's slightly different with a play that lasts three hours in flat light. Shakespeare changes atmosphere and setting with words; if a scene is set in the dark, he tells you when it's dark. Somebody will come on and say ‘The clock strikes one’ so you assume it's dark. It's interesting – in Shakespeare's time people came to ‘hear’ rather than ‘see’ a play but we can’t wipe out the last 400 years in terms of the way people receive stories, so we try to marry the two ideas together and hope that we don’t lose anything vital. As an actor, it's hard to give up lines you’ve learnt and started to own, but I’m not a purist; I don’t think we should necessarily speak every single word as Shakespeare wrote it. At the same time I do jealously guard some lines, because although storytelling is a hugely important aspect of the plays, there are other things going on there too.
Sixteen Years Older
I’ve been thinking about how we might age sixteen years in the interval. Somebody pointed out in rehearsals ‘Well, they’re only aging from 30 to 46’ – it's quite a way, but it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly geriatric. The physical changes are subtler than that! I think we’ll probably change hair and beard colour – a bit more grey. For Polixenes, it's his outlook on life that has changed: early on in the play he's quite a party animal, but when we meet him sixteen years later, he's hardened a bit and he's less jolly. He's accumulated layers of armour to cope with what's happened to him. Having said that, there's a very funny bit in the final scene when Leontes comments on how wrinkled the statue of Hermione looks, whilst she's standing there listening! The words do the work for you at that point, like verbal make-up.
Off Stage Reunions
I’ve been thinking more about why the final reunions between Perdita and Leontes and Polixenes and Florizel take place off stage. In some ways perhaps it's more moving or exciting to be told about an event and imagine it rather than see the thing itself. Maybe Shakespeare thought it would be better to see this through the eyes of other people in the court… to put the main family back into context and show what an effect they had on everybody who is part of that society. One of the things I really like about the scenes after Leontes accuses Hermione of adultery is that you see all these people around him saying ‘This is ridiculous, you can’t really believe this?’ You actually see his actions having an effect on the people around him: there's a real community in the court. In all his plays, Shakespeare likes looking at the same event through lots of different eyes: people involved, people at one remove, people from a different social class. I think that's one of the reasons they’re so universal. So there's something very human about the reporting of the reunions. And at the same time, the report allows Autolycus’ story to wind up: he's left feeling hard done by whilst the old shepherd is made a nobleman. That's a nice pay-off which would have been difficult to stage in parallel with the reunions themselves.
I’m really looking forward to the first run-through of the play and I’m itching to get on the stage now! Philip [Camillo] and I talked to Tim Carroll [Master of Play, The Tempest] about how much The Tempest has changed since it opened. He said it had changed hugely: after six weeks of rehearsing, you get into the theatre for tech week and think ‘Why did we bother with the last six weeks?!’ because the theatre itself requires something very different. Then you meet your first audience and the play changes again because things have moved on. I suppose that's always the way, moving on to the next level as different things become challenging and require more focus. The play really only begins to mean anything once an audience is there. It's as if we’re waiting for the other 1500 characters in the play to arrive!
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.