‘…homely foolery’: Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale

Yesterday, I went to see Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The production placed the two courts in an interesting setting.  Bailey explains in an interview with Carol Chillington Rutter in the programme:

We’re setting the play in the 1860s, conceiving Leontes’ court along the lines of the Pre-Raphaelite movement at that time.  The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists who resisted the mechanisation of man brought about by the industrial revolution and who harked back to an idealised medieval world, living a romance, but supported by wealth and  education.  They have created their own Eden, an earthly paradise, which is inward looking, narcissistic; illusional and delusional.

The production’s first half, perhaps as a consequence of its setting, appeared somewhat melodramatic.  Yet, this melodrama (largely a part of Shakespeare’s play itself) was brought into an interesting contrast with Bohemia’s court, making Leontes and his circle not only ‘inward looking, narcissistic; illusional and delusional’, but also culturally inauthentic – pretentious, spoilt, and decadent.  The setting of most of the second half, Polixenes’s court, puts this into view through its contrast:

We’ve set Bohemia on the northwest coast of industrial England.  These people, workers from the surrounding farms, mills, factories, have practically no leisure.  So when they celebrate – wow! – do they celebrate.  Their humour is there because life is hard.  They have very little, but they make the most of what they have.  They also have a lack of self-consciousness compared to the beautiful crowd up top, and at times a vulgarity which is liberating.

Bohemia was strikingly ‘northern’.  Before this backdrop of mining towns, pit-workers, and coal-dust, Lucy Bailey and set designer William Dudley curiously combined the play’s pastoralism with late Victorian working-class culture.  There was no lute or lyre, no shepherd’s pipes.  Instead, we had playing the spoons, knotted hankies, and, in a performance that should silence all of the first-half critics, morris dancers! The shepherd who finds the abandoned baby Perdita was a miner returning home from his shift on his bicycle.  It’s more Beamish than Bohemia.

The result was a fascinating inversion of the traditional qualities of the pastoral genre – as removed and rustic – with the somehow more ‘urban’ afflictions of introversion and madness (the hallmarks of Leontes’s court, once his jealousy takes root).  The English morris dancing – done very professionally – was not only great festival fun, it tied in the urban-festival of early modern England with the industrial setting of Bailey’s Bohemia.  William Kempe famously morris danced for nine days from London to Norwich, described in the pamphlet Nine Days’ Wonder (1600) in a form that merges travel-writing with ballad-singing. In Kempe’s morris dancing, urban discovery and the bustling world of London meet the traditions of old England.

Frontispiece to Kempe’s morris dancing pamphlet

Indeed, Kempe is as concerned with ballads as Shakespeare is in The Winter’s Tale (1609-11).  Continually, the play references ballad and street literature, and the knavish Autolycus poses as a ballad-seller in order to defraud the party, at the Old Shepherd’s house.  He sells all sorts of outrageous titles, but, as the credulous Mopsa (a name interestingly taken from Sidney’s enormously influential pastoral romance, Arcadia, in which she is also easily duped) attests, their currency lies in their form: ‘I love a ballad in print, alife, for then we are sure they are true’ (IV.iv.252).  Kempe was a victim of such credulity, it seems, and Nine Days’ includes a supplication in the form of a ballad:

Kemps humble request to the impudent generation of Ballad-makers and their coherents, that it would please their rascalities to pitty his paines in the great iourney he pretends, and not fill the country with lyes of his neuer done actes as they did in his late Morrice to Norwich.

To the tune of Thomas Delonies Epitaph. (D3r)

Autolycus’s performance and knowing nods to the audience in The Winter’s Tale exaggerate and make preposterous the ‘lyes’ of such ‘neuer done actes’:

Here’s another ballad, of a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hearts of maids.  It was thought she was a woman, and was turned into cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her.  The ballad is very pitiful, and as true. (IV.iv.265-70))

The convergence of ballad-culture with the rustic tradition of morris dancing in both Bailey’s production and Kempe’s pamphlet merges urban and rural: an intimate and personal social pastime combines with a bustling city print culture, mass-produced and mass-consumed.  Many morris dancing troupes, some of which survive today, originated from the industrial pressures of the Victorian era and the holiday celebrations:

Bailey’s production brought these two traditions together, much as the towns of the industrial north had themselves.  The result undermines the  ‘grotesque’ and ‘gothic’ often projected onto working-class urban life, making its anti-pastoral stand for the innocence and merry-making normally associated with the bucolic tradition.

The set of the production certainly drew on these perceived meanings.  The centre-piece was a round, raised bench-area, decorated in classical style.  As we moved from Leontes’s court to Polixenes’s Bohemia, the centre-piece raised out of the ground, turning as it did so, and moving towards the ceiling.  What emerged as it raised was a giant industrial tower, with rusty piping circling it and emitting waves of coal-dust – this is Bohemia.  The spectacle reminded me of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony:

Opening out of the ground into the industrial world, the backdrop of Polixenes’s court offered a more hopeful world.  Indeed, placing the removed, self-conscious, and anti-industrial ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ court of Leontes figuratively at the top of this industrial tower – literally placed over it – ironically turned the cultural world of industrial England into the ideal, with its ballads and its folk dances.  Perdita’s pronounced northern accent emphasised the play’s progressiveness rather than the taking a more conservative reading. Perdita may be revealed to be of royal blood, but she is culturally born of the industrial North-West.

The production wasn’t flawless, by any means, (and the bear was considerably underwhelming – made, as it was, of pixels), but really, and very uncritically, I was so taken with the morris-dancing (I really like morris-dancing) and the festive industrial world of Bohemia that the production’s failings faded away.  By the close of the play, the removed court of Leontes has decayed into the rusty industrial world of Bohemia – but without its vitality. Leontes is figuratively and literally brought back down to the level of the play’s labourers-cum-revellers, descending the stairs from his oxidised ivory tower: the resolution only comes when the anti-industrial Romantic ideal meets the cultural realities of workaday life, a provocative conclusion to a play that could otherwise more simply be seen as a beautiful celebration of (im)possibilities.

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