Jo Stone-Fewings on Leontes


Actor Jo Stone-Fewings explains how he approached the role of Leontes in The Winter's Tale.

I came to it without any preconceptions.

Lucy was clear that she wanted to find out what made Leontes tick before the jealousy descends, and in the play that's a very short period of stage time. We talked about the nature of this jealousy, how it descended and what it is.

The approach we decided on was that Polixenes has been there for nine months, and everything is fine. Leontes is happy, he's very much in love with his wife, but unconsciously a seed has been planted, and that suddenly explodes through.

A lot of people ask me how this jealousy seizes Leontes so quickly, and yes, it does happen quickly. We're emotional beings, we run our lives on emotion. We buy houses on emotion, you buy cars because they are sold to you on emotion.

A 'blaze' of emotion
During rehearsals I came across a poem called My Fiftieth Year by WB Yeats, which talks about emotion happening in a blaze, coming over someone in an instant.

When Leontes says 'Too hot. Too hot' his emotions are like a fire, which spread so quickly. I brought this poem into rehearsals and Lucy saw exactly what I meant. So the poem was my touchstone really at the beginning. The jealousy just consumes, and the problem with jealousy is it just doesn't go away. It's like an itch you can't help scratching.

'Warts and all'
After that, I think, the play becomes about catharsis, where a man has to reach rock bottom before things can start to get better. You have to remember that, although he's a king, Leontes is a man.

I wanted Leontes to be modern, someone you'd recognise in the 21st Century. I asked a friend of mine, Jonathan Munby, who directed the play in America, if he had any tips on playing the part, and he said you just have to play Leontes warts and all. And he's right. Leontes becomes childish, there are petty jealousies, and it brings down someone who is a very loving, passionate man, but like all of us, you do things you wish you hadn't have done.

And then of course just as quickly as he was jealous, the scales fall from his eyes and he realises what has happened, that he was wrong. It's ugly, there's no nobility about it. So you could ask why, when he realises the mistake he's made, does he not kill himself? Well one, it's a play, and two, there's a feeling of hope that runs through the play. And Leontes knows he has to go through sixteen years of penance.

Diagnosing Leontes
I have a psychotherapist friend and I've talked to her about previous roles I've played, and I spoke to her about Leontes. She didn't know the play, so I talked her through the character, and she gave a diagnosis.

She told me that there's something called the Leontine condition, which is all about jealousy of the child, which is a route I decided not to go down. B

ut there's also a condition called morbid jealousy, which strikes men in their 40s. So it seems that this jealousy is a modern disease, and Leontes realises it's a disease and apologises for it at the end. It's something that could strike all of us.

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Teaching Shakespeare