Lucy Bailey's production played in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from January to February 2013, before embarking on a UK tour.
Designed by William Dudley, the production showed the court at Sicilia as a decadent palace, while Bohemia is an industrial seaside town complete with pier, deckchairs and sewage outlet.
Throughout the play, in Sicilia and Bohemia there is a vast tower, at the top of which Leontes sits, enduring 16 years of guilt.
Rakie Ayola - Paulina
Sally Bankes - Dorcas
Daniel Betts - Camillo
Tara Fitzgerald - Hermione
Gavin Fowler - Florizel
Andrew Hanratty - Lord
Nick Holder - Young Shepherd
Kieran Knowles - Gaoler
Adam Levy - Polixenes
Daniel Millar - Dion
Charlotte Mills - Mopsa
Emma Noakes - Perdita
Joseph Pitcher - Cleomenes
Pearce Quigley - Autolycus
David Shaw-Parker - Old Shepherd
Phil Snowden - Mariner
Jo Stone-Fewings - Leontes
Bethan Walker - Emilia
Ben Whybrow - Lord
Duncan Wisbey - Antigonus
Director - Lucy Bailey
Designer - William Dudley
Lighting - Oliver Fenwick
Music - Jon Boden
Sound - David McSeveney
Movement - Lizzi Gee
Fights - Renny Krupinski
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.
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.
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. But 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.
The actor talks about playing a human statue and explains what she likes about The Winter's Tale.
For me the classic image of the two theatre masks of comedy and tragedy really sums the play up. You couldn't ask for more in a play. If you fancy a bit of tragedy, it's there; if you fancy a bit of comedy, it's there.
There is a lot of heart in it, and as a company we've endeavoured to find that. The poetry is so beautiful too, but it doesn't feel burdensome. It feels alive. And I love that you can keep exploring the play, and discovering new things. That's what makes it so enjoyable to play.
I've read quite a lot about the play, and Hermione's always described as 'dignified', and she almost reaches a saint-like status in a lot of the descriptions. I think it's true that she has enormous dignity, but she's not a 'Disney' princess. A lot of the situations she finds herself in are dictated by the mores of the time, and the power that women did or didn't have, but Shakespeare's genius is to give women a very clear voice, albeit confined by certain things.
To me, the key to understanding her is her love for her husband, that's her raison d'être, and she's completely faithful to him. That is what makes the story so devastating.
Coming back from the dead
One of the challenges is that after the first half of the play, Hermione disappears. You believe she's dead. And then she comes back at the end as a statue! You have to stop worrying about realism, and accept that it's a theatrical experience, defying explanation.
I did read somewhere that what she and Paulina do, in terms of disappearing and maintaining the notion that she's dead and then bringing her back as a statue after 16 years, could be perceived as a kind of cruelty.
For this production we chose to go more with the idea that Leontes wasn't ready to have Hermione back until the 16 years had elapsed.
It takes the duration of Perdita's childhood and the burgeoning of a new generation for things to be right for the reconciliation. Having Jo as Leontes on stage on top of the tower during the second half of the play keeps him active, in preparation.
On a lighter note, some of my mates who have seen the show have said that if I ever need to I could go down to Covent Garden and be one of the human statues you see there!