It is required
You do awake your faith.
(The Winter’s Tale, 5.3)
This directive from Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was referenced time and again on our first day of rehearsal. The initial coming together of artists is always thrilling, but it was exponentially so for this production, poised as it is to celebrate the Folger’s much anticipated re-opening after its multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation. That first rehearsal felt like a homecoming: actors returned to the stage, and the space was reunited with sounds of Shakespeare and unchecked enthusiasm. It was a day that affirmed our collective faith in the power of language and art, in theatre and its audiences.
The Winter’s Tale’s investment in the restorative effects of reunion, repair, transformation and return offers up an irresistible link to the Folger’s own newly-minted transformation, its expansion of architecture and enterprise. But the choice is more than clever. Both play and property confirm the influence of stories, how committed we become to those we tell ourselves, and the extent to which our humanity is determined by our openness to narratives other than our own. “What’s your story?” is the theme of the Folger’s 23-24 season; it is a question we are compelled to ask, answer, and ask again.
Director Tamilla Woodard approached this Winter’s Tale attentive to the ways stories function in the play, and with a sympathy not always seen for the reckless King who propels the play’s tragic half. To Woodard, Leontes, like many of us, is too caught up in the narrow world of a self-imposed, problematic narrative. Sicilia will have the chance to heal only when he is forced to see beyond it. It is no accident that his Queen Hermione, a character of monumental grace, shows steady interest in others’ stories, past and present. She invites her young son to “sit by us / And tell’s a tale” (2.1), and will make a similar offer in the acts ahead. The hope of uncovering another person’s story seems to be what sustains her.
Recognizing the value of other people’s stories might account for Autolycus’s curious brand of virtue. A “snapper up of trifles” who boasts that he is “false of heart” (4.3), Autolycus swindles honest folk while pedaling ballads “and all men’s ears grew to his tunes” (4.4). His customers are eager to gain access to those tales, and even more eager to lend their voices to them. (Listen closely to the songs’ subjects; these fantastic pieces oddly work to repair the disfunction of the play’s first half.) The play’s trickster, conning his marks with stories, takes a keen interest, too, in narratives not intended for his ears.
But before we condemn Autolycus for underhanded practices, we should recognize (spoiler alert!) that it is precisely his deception that makes possible the play’s hopeful end. Deception becomes a blessing in Bohemia, and Autolycus is not alone in spinning tales. Plenty of Bohemians appear in disguises, play-acting stories of their own design. Despite their intentions, characters’ performances expose their identities. After all, it is when Perdita is “pranked up” as a goddess that Florizel makes the astute observation that “all her acts are queens” (4.4). Stories told enable characters to feel their way toward truth.
The Winter’s Tale is not the only play in which Shakespeare highlights the value of stories, or in which a kind of authenticity stems from artifice. These are terrific messages to communicate from a stage. Audiences arrive to the theatre ready for a good story. And while we know these stories are not real, they affect us, nonetheless, by revealing human truths. There are many of these in The Winter’s Tale. Who doesn’t hope for fairy gold, that forgiveness is possible no matter the harm we do, that what is lost will be found? In crafting this production at this time and in this space, we value the play for making art itself a source of hope and wonder, the best restorative of all “Performed in this wide gap of time since first / We were dissevered” (5.3).
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