Sitting in the warm, dark RSC theatre watching Shakespearean-trained actors prance around Morris dancing, it is easy to imagine the spirit of the groundlings at an original Shakespearean production. Synchronised clapping evokes the rapture of the sheer theatrical joy of Shakespeare’s contemporary Globe. Ample leg room and a vanilla ice-cream enhance the bawdy humour of Shakespearean comedy and, filing out of the theatre after the allotted amount of applause and bowing, it is easy to envisage the drunken, raucous joy of 1600s London’s Southbank.
The RSC showcases production after production of Shakespeare, variations on the theme of Shakespeare and Shakespeare revisited. Often, they are arresting and ingenious and push the Shakespearean canon into the modern day by overcoming the huge cultural gap between Shakespeare’s time and our time. When they fail in this task, the plays can seem flaccid, not culturally provocative and too-far-removed to be of any value other than reassuring the RSC that it is still the RSC. A production that does little above tide the theatre season over, keep the company up and running and quench an audience’s desire for dinner party talk is something to be weary of. Enjoying a Shakespeare play because it does what it says on the outdated tin is culturally lazy.
Currently playing at the RSC Theatre is Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale, a production that is to tour the UK in 2013. We may remember Bailey as the director of RSC’s 2012’s Taming of the Shrew, which failed to inspire in much the same way that The Winter’s Tale falls short. The director can’t be blamed for the problematic The Winters Tale with its unsatisfactory ending, confusing hybrid of genre, and class caricatures. I would have wanted to see the play pushed past these problems and conceptualised for a modern audience, as Shakespeare’s plays so eloquently can be. In 2013, it is no longer funny, clever or necessary to derive humour from juxtaposing a Yorkshire accent with the dialect of Royalty. At worst, the presentation of Florizel and Perdita is offensive and dangerous. It is only amusing to watch Autolycus sing and rhyme because when you sat down in your pre-booked well-padded seat you forgot your sense of humour because ‘THIS IS SHAKESPEARE- LAUGH’ was being forced upon you and you forgot to have an opinion other than ‘this is funny’, ‘that was a euphemism’, ‘that peasant shouldn’t be marrying a prince!!’.
First half tragedy, second half comedy. Happy, ridiculous ending. Nine words to sum up three hours of theatre, which makes no attempt to use the text as a tool for something larger. The problem lies not with the acting, which of course was excellent, but with the staleness/lack of interpretation and modern reinvigoration of the play. The only thing separating this production from a less than amateur production of The Winter’s Tale is the staging, with a circular, rising platform. Therein lies the vanity and complacent nature of the directing. We are meant to be impressed by this ‘feat’ of staging, but we’ve seen impressive staging before; it adds nothing to the drama and makes little thematic sense in this instance. Once again, it feels like Bailey fails to use the RSC’s immense resources and talent to present The Winter’s Tale in an innovative and inspired way.
I understand the importance of keeping Shakespeare alive, hence why I trotted off for an afternoon swanning around the pubs of Stratford before settling down to watch the play. I also understand that the RSC revere the traditional spirit of Shakespeare, but with this production such reverence fails in light of the stark stage/audience divide. This production led me to think that such traditionalism should be left to the Globe, where dancing and clapping leaks from the stage into the groundlings, and bubbles up through the seats. In the RSC theatre we sit with straight backs, applauding at appropriate times and looking sad when something sad happens.
As a presentation of The Winter’s Tale, Bailey’s version is true and will unarguably please the traditionalist among us. My tastes are certainly not representative of the RSC’s main audience, who would swallow the play perhaps with a glass of Pinot and be content. The failure lies rather in the lack of vigour of interpretation, and that Shakespeare’s ever resurrect-able text fails to shine new light into 2013 which is its genius. Lacking this genius, we are simply watching a farcical play.