The Winter’s Tale, which Shakespeare apparently wrote in 1610 or 1611, belongs to the group of “late romances” that dominate his final period. Of the bunch, The Tempest is encountered often, Pericles and Cymbeline almost never, and The Winter’s Tale now and again. It will cross the boards for three weeks in a production by Oasis Theatre Company, which has appropriately timed it for a frigid season. As Shakespeare observes in its second act, “a sad tale’s best for winter.”
The Winter’s Tale opens Thursday, Jan. 31, and runs through Feb. 17, with performances Thursdays through Sundays.
This play shares many characteristics of the late romances. It mixes courtly and rural settings in an amalgam of tragedy and comedy. Young lovers figure in subplots, but older men are at the center of the action. (Shakespeare, perhaps not coincidentally, was no longer young when he wrote this, having passed his forty-fifth year.) Mythic, godlike figures make appearances as leading characters travel the road to redemption. Complications are set aright by magic.
Jealousy drives the plot of The Winter’s Tale. At their court in Sicilia, King Leontes and his wife, Hermione, entertain Leontes’ old friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, who has now stayed for nearly nine months. Leontes grows certain — suddenly, irrationally, mistakenly — that Polixenes has had an affair with Hermione and has even sired the child she carries in her belly. He imprisons Hermione, and when she delivers her daughter, Leontes has the infant taken away to be left on the distant seashore of Bohemia. (Shakespeare was no geographer.) Word arrives that Hermione has died in prison, and Leontes plunges into grief. So far, the play is a dark tragedy.
After intermission, the audience witnesses a merry sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia. It has the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy. People sing and dance, adolescents fall in love, and after a while, some of the characters leave on a trip to — you guessed it — Sicilia. There, a magical transformation takes place and blameless Hermione is miraculously restored to embittered Leontes. There is a lot of strange stuff here, unrolling to a text that catches every accent to perfection, from peasant vulgarity to magisterial courtliness.
Separating the two halves of the play is a remarkable figure who delivers a brief monologue, his only words in the entire play. His name is Time. He introduces himself to the audience and informs them that he is using his power to “slide o’er sixteen years,” thereby overthrowing law. By that he means the law of classical unities, which decreed that a play’s action must unfurl within no more than a 24-hour period. By the end of his speech, he has ushered viewers across a bridge of genre, space, and calendar — from tragedy to comedy, from Sicilia to Bohemia, and through a gap of 16 years. At line 16 (yes, 16), the precise midpoint of his 32-line speech, he executes his only physical feat, proclaiming, “I turn my glass.” This is the action at the center of the play.
The significance of the character has not been lost on Brenda Lynn Bynum, who is directing the Oasis production. She has taken a creative spin on both time and Time. She updates the action to the straitjacketed McCarthy era of 1955 Chicago for the first half, and after the passage of 16 years, to the wild abandon of a 1971 hippie happening in Ann Arbor for the second. Although that monologue remains Time’s only Shakespearean speech, she is also introducing him as a presence elsewhere in the play, including at the very beginning. “I wanted to go back to where we might find an innocent kiss between Hermione and Polixenes,” she said, “and I realized that might happen on New Year’s Eve. So Time counts down the seconds to the new year, and the play begins at the stroke of midnight.”
Oasis will be performing from the Everyman Library edition of the play, published in 1995 under the editorship of John F. Andrews, OBE. Since Dr. Andrews now resides in Santa Fe, we rang him up to inquire about that glass. “In almost every production I have seen,” he told us, “Time is an old man with long hair carrying an hourglass. But Shakespeare’s word ‘glass’ can also signify a mirror. In a sense, Time does also hold up a mirror — a mirror to nature. At this moment everything changes, including the seasons, so the turning of the glass is simultaneously a change in years and a change in nature itself.”
In this production, Bynum will have the character Time carry neither an hourglass nor a mirror. He will be a shaman, garbed in a costume assembled from far-flung corners of the globe — Middle-Eastern pants, a Coptic cross from Egypt, a bag adorned with Aztec icons — and he carries a drum decorated with an image that in ancient Ireland denoted time. No matter how he is portrayed, he is, in a way, the most important character of all. In his new book Shakespeare: The Theatre of Our World (reviewed recently in these pages), Peter Conrad writes: “Time qualifies for this commanding choral role because it is the medium of our mortality. A physical force rather than a figure expecting to be worshipped, it is the one true god in Shakespeare’s plays.” ◀
▼ The Winter’s Tale
▼ Thursday, Jan. 31 through Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
▼ John Andrews, who edited this edition of the play, leads a post-show discussion on Feb. 10
▼ Oasis Theatre, 3205 Calle Marie, Suite A
▼ Tickets $15-$25 through theoasistheatre.com, 917-439-7708