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Beyond our grasp: Blanche McIntyre on The Winter's Tale

  ‘My way into the play is to think about monsters’

9 minute read

Blanche McIntyre returns to the Globe Theatre once more to direct Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, as part of our 2018 summer season. In this interview with our Research Fellow and Lecturer Dr Will Tosh, she talks about the irrational, the unknowable, late Shakespeare and bringing the Sicilia and Bohemia of the play onto the Globe stage.

Would you start by telling us a bit about your take on the play at this early stage in rehearsal?

My way into the play is to think about monsters – by which I mean portents, which is the meaning of the Latin root of the word. So we’re thinking about creatures, events and processes that can’t be logically understood by humans. This could be Leontes’ rage, but it also could be Polixenes’ rage in the fourth act, it could be the shipwreck, it could be the bear, and in a wider sense any event which is beyond our grasp as humans, including miracles, and including magic.

We see portents and magic elsewhere in Shakespeare. What was it specifically about The Winter’s Tale that seemed to lead you in that direction?

It seems to me that we are at a moment in time, culturally, that seems to be a state of overwhelmedness. We see a range of such irrational reactions to events that it is hard, sometimes, to draw a connection between the effect and the thing that caused it. Politically and culturally speaking, I think in the west we seem to be experiencing a sort of emotional convulsion, and I find our inability to control that by rational discourse really interesting.

A woman rest her arms on the edge of the Globe Theatre stage, looking up.

‘In The Winter’s Tale, we’re thinking about creatures, events and processes that can’t logically be understood by humans’ — Blanche McIntyre. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

Do you think we can take Leontes’ sudden jealousy as a sort of metaphor for political shock? And if so, is there a solution or a balm that the play is offering?

I wish that I could draw a real-life parallel from the play. I suppose the only thing that I can take from it that is in any way comforting is that these things work themselves out. That you can have an emotional eruption, but it will ultimately calm down once it has performed its purpose. As we see in The Winter’s Tale, there may be enormous damage, and at the end of this story not everything is made good. But I think there’s a cyclical sense in the play, from rational discourse to emotional eruption and back to rational discourse.

When people have spoken about cycles in The Winter’s Tale before, they often think in quite linear and conventional ways about time, the seasons, Sicilia and Bohemia, tyranny to resolution. It seems to me you’re suggesting something more complex and abstract in terms of the cyclicality of your Winter’s Tale.

I think there’s a belief in Eastern Orthodox Christianity that God is unknowable, that it’s the essence of God to be unknowable. So I’m interested in thinking about the unknowable as something that’s neither negative or positive, but part of the natural world – and it’s the way we try to manage or contain natural events like storms, or bears, or jealous rage, that might cause problems.

How concerned has the company been with explaining why Leontes suddenly gets consumed with jealousy?

The key thing is that there’s no reason that would justify it. There’s no legitimate cause for it. It seems very important that we not do the classic thing of a flirty moment between Polixenes and Hermione, partly because that suggests that she brings it on herself. To imply a woman is responsible for a man’s breakdown seems to me to be politically awkward and probably not true, or helpful.

A man leans his hand against the wall of the Globe Theatre, gesturing behind him.

‘There’s no reason that would justify Leonte’s jealously in the play’. Will Keen in rehearsals as Leontes. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

You’ve brought up another theme in the play, which is the sudden and devastating application of male establishment violence to a woman – who in every other respect is incredibly privileged and has the full force of elite protection. Her father is the Emperor of Russia, she’s married to the King of Sicilia, she’s the mother of the next king, but everything in her life can be destroyed in a second, in a breath.

This is all still up for grabs in rehearsals, but for now we’re thinking about Sicilia as a place that thinks of itself as very sophisticated and very advanced. It wants to be a place that invites dialogue, and invites wit, and is pleased to have clever women in it. Women speak up, everybody is free to talk, and they use that freedom. And then it implodes, and we see that a woman can be destroyed, taken down. It makes us conscious that the rights of women, and any groups that have historically been denied rights by the dominant power, are precarious. Those rights can very quickly be taken away, and we need to hang on to them alertly.

A woman wearing a green cargo jacket looks down disgruntled whilst pointing her finger out.

‘Sicilia wants to be a place that invites dialogue, but then it implodes, and women can be destroyed.’ Priyanga Burford as Hermione in rehearsals. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

A woman glares over her shoulder, a baby bundled in her arms.

‘When Paulina stands up to Leontes, that’s not a transgressive act – she sees that as her right.’ Sirine Saba as Paulina in rehearsals. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

We see characters in The Winter’s Tale fight passionately for their rights…

It strikes me very powerfully that all the women in the play are fearlessly outspoken. My conclusion is that they live in a society which they do not regard as constitutionally oppressive in that way: there’s a lot of sexism in their society, but they have a voice and they also expect to have a voice. In trying to take away their voices, it’s Leontes who does an unconstitutional thing. That’s the transgression. When Paulina stands up to Leontes, that’s not a transgressive act – she sees that as her right.

The Winter’s Tale has a big changeover – the move from Sicilia to Bohemia. Has that structural shift been a challenge for you and the company?

I approached this play the wrong way round, because I started with Bohemia. And I have seen a lot of terrible Bohemias in my time, which tend to look like somebody has gone ‘I don’t know what this is, but I know it’s exotic, so therefore I will lavish props and prosthetics on it so that we all know it’s nothing to do with us.’ But here I feel that if I were Shakespeare, rural Bohemia would be a more familiar world to me than courtly Sicilia. So my take on the play has been to bring Bohemia close to us, and push Sicilia away by contrast.

Where have you looked for examples of a society like Shakespeare’s Sicilia?

I’ve been trying to find as inspiration places which are self-aware, open cultures, confident and outward looking, with shallow hierarchies of power: places where the marriage of the daughter of the emperor of Russia to the king of Sicilia could be a completely normal thing. The main example that we’ve been going back to is quite obscure: a historical Sicily which existed in the twelfth century. This was a particularly good time to be alive in terms of culture, science, civilisation. It was a liberal, multicultural culture: it was Norman, it was Muslim, it was Italian, and it enjoyed the heritage of Greece and Rome. This tolerance seems to me important because if that place can implode and become tyrannical, then anywhere can. By contrast, Bohemia is in many ways more familiar to us, both in terms of location and time-period.

Two actors stand opposite each other with candles in between them

‘The Winter’s Tale was written during the period Shakespeare’s company were thinking of acquiring the indoor Blackfriars playhouse.’ Our 2016 production of The Winter’s Tale in our candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

The last time we did The Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare’s Globe was in the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is a very different environment to the outdoor Globe. Given that the play was written during the period when Shakespeare’s company was contemplating the acquisition of the indoor Blackfriars playhouse, do you feel it’s more suited to enclosed or outdoor performance? 

I feel as though Bohemia is naturally suited for the Globe, and I’m thrilled about that because Bohemia is, famously, the difficult bit to get right. So I’d much rather it be that way round. I think that Sicilia is going to be interesting in the Globe partly because of the way that Leontes shares what he’s feeling with the audience. What happens to an audience-actor relationship that is naturally warm, as it always is at the Globe, when somebody poisons that relationship with their imaginings and dark fantasies?

Is it unusual to have a central protagonist in a Shakespeare play whose articulacy and openness with the audience is pursued in the service of something that’s unethical, such as Leontes’ destruction of Hermione?

There’s Iago in Othello of course, and Aaron in Titus Andronicus, but Aaron has a very different connection with the audience because his relationship is combative. It’s virtually the only time in Shakespeare that you have a character saying ‘I think you don’t like me. I’m going to make you like me less.’ Leontes is special because he expresses so much to the audience, but in an extraordinarily unfiltered way.

A man holds a bundle in his left arm, whilst pointing his sword at another.

‘Aaron has a very different connection with the audience because his relationship is combative.’ Obi Abili as Aaron in our 2014 production of Titus Andronicus. Photographer: Simon Kane.

The language in Shakespeare’s late plays has a reputation for being knotty and sometimes obscure, but also hugely powerful and flexible. What has been your experience of ‘late Shakespeare’?

The final scene of The Winter’s Tale is heart-breaking and the resolution is extraordinary, but nonetheless it leaves you with questions. It’s a slam dunk ending where somebody says ‘hastily lead away’, and away they all go. I think he’s less interested in plot resolutions than in the process of getting to the end. The ‘wrapping up’ bit is often very abrupt in late Shakespeare – The Two Noble Kinsmen is another example. I think he’s less interested in the plot itself than in the process of thinking and acting. In a similar way, what you get in the language of these very late plays is less a sense of plot-being communicated, than an almost abstract ‘modern art’ take on how communication can happen: whether via images, or accumulation of references, or via clashes of understanding. This slipping and sliding of language seems to be something that follows plausibly when you have a master playwright who has worked on all the plots in the world: naturally he’s become more interested in the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.