Director Lucy Bailey explains her approach to the play she didn't want to direct.
How did the opportunity to direct The Winter's Tale come about?
Initially I didn't want to direct it! Michael Boyd, the RSC's Artistic Director at the time, asked if it interested me. I said 'Absolutely not!'
My very first job was assisting on Terry Hands' production for the RSC. I had seen several other versions since then. My head was too full of other productions. Begrudgingly I read the play again, and I absolutely fell in love with it.
You're setting the play in the 1860s - tell us about that.
We realised we were looking for a Sicilia that was really about these people who had formed a community that was very inward looking, very privileged, very remote from their own people.
The 1860s was a good equivalent because it offered us the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement of artists who were running away from recognised man, running away from the Industrial Revolution, sort of forming a brotherhood of love.
This was a period when people didn't want to think about the horrors of the Crimean War – they were searching for other values and fun. If you think 1860s, think 1960s – to some degree there's a parallel.
What is the difference between Sicilia and Bohemia in your production?
At the beginning, in Sicilia, it's late summer. There's a very languid party going on. Leontes and his court are living a sheltered, beautiful dream of a life, bathed in endless sunshine, and completely removed from the real world of work and suffering. It is in essence an Ivory Tower.
At the bottom of that tower, in Bohemia, is where the real people have to get on with life. In the production we're setting Bohemia on a beach along the north coast of England. It's really where the poor are, where the working men and women, despite their struggle, make the most of very little.
Sicilia and Bohemia are not so much about two separate places and two separate countries, but they are about two separate ways of living, one is without money and one with, to be very simplistic.
You mention an Ivory Tower. The main element of the set is big tower, is that right?
In many ways The Winter's Tale is a fairytale. It's not a naturalistic play, it's not literal. It's a story that touches on many things: it's a thriller, a romance, an adventure story, that has a strong sense of the fairytale about it. It's a fairytale where you might lose a baby but it's found again.
The tower is not just as an Ivory Tower which sums up the Sicilian world, but suggests all sorts of images, such Blue Beard in his castle, and Rapunzel, the Princess who is locked away (just like Hermione is).
We'll see Leontes at the top of the tower during the Bohemia part of the play. It's like a Tower of Penance; he's like the hermit in the desert, crying out for salvation, for forgiveness. There's a sense that his punishment will go on forever and ever.
What are The Winter's Tale's strengths as a piece of drama?
It's probably Shakespeare's best written play, in so far as every character has the most astonishing language. And the language is knockout. It's breathtaking, and also it's led by this enormous emotional story.
I think the first three acts are some of the best dramatic writing that has ever been written. And it's so modern, dealing with relationships, and, of course, how jealousy is the most irrational, disastrous and poisonous of emotions.
Shakespeare writes at a real pace. He examines Leontes' descent into madness in such an extraordinary way, using language that expresses astonishing complexity. This makes the play remarkable, and stronger than some of the writing in King Lear.
The problem with The Winter's Tale is that people find it hard when it comes out of Sicilia, goes to Bohemia and comes back to Sicilia. People sometimes feel like they've lost their bearings. Hopefully with this production the two worlds are always present, together.
What will Jo Stone-Fewings and Tara Fitzgerald bring to the roles of Leontes and Hermione?
I've tried to go very young in the casting. Often Leontes and Hermione are cast very old, but these are people who have a baby, and are about to have another. They should be people you don't say 'You should know better' to. They allow everything to be thrown away, and they need to be young enough to do that. I wanted them to have a chance of a life at the end after the reconciliation, so they need to be young enough to make that meaningful.
For Leontes, I wanted to cast someone who, during the first ten minutes of the play, could explore a jealousy that that has never entered into his life before. It's completely new to him, and something no one expects.
Leontes and Hermione have lived the most delightful, easy and idle life. Sicilia has been a place of deep security for a long time. Jo has that innate goodness about him. And he's young, so when the jealousy takes hold, it's a totally shocking event. No one can believe it. We also need to sympathise with Leontes. You can't just see him as a madman; he's got to be someone we really like, and that's something Jo really brings to the part.
I've wanted to work with Tara for a long time. She possesses a directness, and a combination of pragmatism and extraordinary imagination. Tara has enormous humour and real wit, which is so right for Hermione. Tara is coming at Hermione with a bareness, an honesty that is truly magical.
Rakie Ayola, who plays Paulina, is very intuitive with great intelligence and wit. Paulina is another role that is often played much older. It can come across as a kind of dowager or governess, like a spinster, but she's actually married with kids. She's a modern woman, but with great feeling, and a great passion for the truth.
Photo: Lucy Bailey in rehearsal for The Winter's Tale, by Sheila Burnett.