Shakespeare’s canon contains parts for many fools, but none more foolish than obdurate, gullible upper-class men like Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III. In his earlier plays, whatever form their foolishness took was a tragic flaw, and the perpetrators were usually snuffed out. But with his late dramas like The Winter’s Tale, now at BAM as part of The Bridge Project, Shakespeare entered his own maturity, promoting forgiveness. Fortunately, no real forgiveness is necessary where Sam Mendes’ lucid, tough-minded, and ultimately charming production of this problematic play — which is ordinarily considered a play about death and rebirth but is just as much about the related importance of penitence and its humane reward — is concerned.
If Mendes is guilty of any sin, it’s being excessive about directorial notions and thereby lengthening an already diffuse script. The tall tale concerns the fallout when Sicilia’s groundlessly jealous King Leontes (Simon Russell Beale) accuses faithful wife Hermione (Rebecca Hall) and Bohemia’s King Polixenes (Josh Hamilton) of carrying on hanky-pankily before his eyes. Demanding retribution, he sends Polixenes and faithful courtier Camillo (Paul Jesson) packing and later imprisons Hermione and then propels her into a seemingly fatal swoon.
The remainder of the story, adroitly designed for winter and summer looks by Anthony Ward, mostly plays out in Bohemia 16 years later, when Polixenes’ son Florizel (Michael Braun) and Perdita (Morven Christie), the daughter whom Leontes sent to be abandoned when she was an infant, have fallen in love. They are encouraged in their romance by the old shepherd (Richard Easton), who’s raised Perdita as his own, and even the itinerant rogue Autolycus (Ethan Hawke). It’s back to Sicilia only for the final sequence when Shakespeare magnanimously organizes reconciliations and rebirths of various kinds — at least one of them overseen by determined lady-in-waiting Paulina (Sinéad Cusack).
Mendes might have trimmed some of the Bohemian party festivities, but the country dance where three hyperkinetic couples wear balloons to represent enormous titillating body parts is terribly funny. And the songs Hawke sings and strums on guitar as if he were Tom Waits channeling Alice Cooper is also something that few would discard. Mendes’ other brainstorms — such as setting the opening scene in the bedroom of Leontes’ doomed son Mamillius (Christie again in a clever double-casting) — are too good to lose. So is his solution of the famous stage direction that goes “exit, pursued by a bear.”
Yet where Mendes most impressively succeeds is with his Bridge Project strategy to join English actors with North American actors. Of the former, Beale, who habitually can do no wrong, makes entirely credible Leontes’ precipitate shifts from doting husband to irate tyrant and back. Cusack is elegantly authoritative at championing Hermione. Hall, though clipping her speeches as if they were coupons, is an unusually unbending (and quite striking-looking) Hermione. Meanwhile, Hawke, one of our most underrated stage actors, seizes the opportunity to be hilariously loud-mouthed, while Easton’s lanky benignity registers as rustic dignity. Of the principals, only Hamilton allows himself to look like the king of clubs trumped by Beale’s king of hearts.
Nonetheless, Mendes’ sad-happy Tale is one of the best for this winter of our discontent.