The Winter's Tale
Presented by the Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York. February 10-March 8, 2009. Directed by Sam Mendes. Set by Anthony Ward. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Paul Pyant. Sound by Paul Arditti. Music by Mark Bennett. Choreography by Josh Prince. With Simon Russell Beale (Leontes), Rebecca Hall (Hermione), Sinbad Cusack (Paulina), Paul Jesson (Camillo), Morven Christie (Mamillius, Perdita), Dakin Matthews (Antigonus), Josh Hamilton (Polixenes), Michael Braun (Florizel), Richard Easton (Old Shepherd/Time), Tobias Segal (Young Shepherd), Ethan Hawke (Autolycus), and others.
Casting, it is often said, is a director's most important contribution. Early in the theatrical process, matching actors with their roles can be predictive of gaudy success or outright doom. Yet some casting is child's-play. A six-foot Hermia won't do, regardless of the player's intelligence and training; Lear must be old (or oldish), no matter his emotional identification and preparation. More often than not, however, a director must make complicated and difficult choices--call it "adult's-play"--factoring in (among other considerations) an actor's age, shape, skills, range and career history within the larger context of an entire cast's biographical and professional attributes. To this, the director's most difficult and important work, Sam Mendes, famed Oscar and Tony winner, imposed an unnecessary and circumscribing condition: he cast The Winter's Tale with equal parts British and North American actors. Concept-casting, we might call it, or "god's-play."
The gods must be crazy. Shakespeare's strange and wonder-full late romance contains its own complications and inconsistencies and often seems not one play but two, separated by locale (Sicilia and Bohemia) time (sixteen years) and, most significantly, tone (claustrophobic tragedy against open-air pastoral). Mendes and his Bridge Project team suggested that two casts-in-one, each from a different side of the great pond, offered opportunity to explore the play's bifurcated structure--in effect, to emphasize the inherent dramaturgical dissonance by separating the sections and allowing each to play its particular national music.
If the result had been a vivid and disturbing journey of paradise lost and paradise (partially) regained that characterizes this play, no one would have cared--or perhaps even noticed--Mendes's concept-casting. He admitted that British actors are granted more opportunities to see and perform Shakespeare than their North American brothers and sisters, giving them an apparent edge over their North American counterparts, but incongruously suggested a parity of craftsmanship. "There is no difference in skill" between them, he announced. Putting aside the questionable logic that separates the effects that exposure and practice have on skill, everyone knows that splendid classical actors reside on both sides of the Atlantic. Ironically, and sadly, this production confirmed the traditional and largely outdated caste system it aimed so programmatically to dispel: the British in Leontes's Sicilia succeeded, setting the bar too high for the Americans in Autolycus's Bohemia to meet.
Sinead Cusack (Paulina), Rebecca Hall (Hermione), and Simon Russell Beale (Leontes) anchored the production's mostly British first half with quietly understated confidence born of their extensive professional experience. Paulina first entered carrying a suitcase, assessing the Sicilian court with the weary and knowing glances of an expatriate. Had she emigrated to avoid previous disturbances and was now impressed into service to once again put things right? Throughout her performance, a kind of soulful weariness reigned. She rose to righteous indignation only once in a role with many such opportunities--predictably, after Hermione's death. As Hermione, Hall, too, underrepresented her despair when first accused of infidelity, and so saved her most demonstrative work for the trial scene. …