Shakespeare’s later plays — Pericles, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest — have been referred to since the late 19th century as the Romances. This is not because they’re love stories (though love features in them), but because they’re epic tales filled with every device Shakespeare could think of — music, magic, storms at sea, special effects, masques, huge passages of time, and multiple settings — all in the service of usually redemptive tales of faith and family reunions.
Calling these later plays Romances is easier than calling them what really are: Tragedies with happy endings. As such, as interesting and compelling as they are on the page, they can sometimes be problematic on the stage. Shakespeare’s audience may have been familiar and comfortable with such relatively new early 17th-century fads as tragi-comedy and courtly masques created by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but unless the Romances are handled right, today’s audiences can sometimes get whiplash from what they perceive as a certain tonal inconsistency.
Looking at different stage productions of the Romances can be instructive in terms of understanding what makes them “work”. I’ve chosen two Romances to briefly comment on here: Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.
* The 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, with Nigel Terry (The Lion in Winter, Excalibur) in the title role, took a swashbuckling boys’ adventure-type approach with wonderful fights, great passion, and pirates who rappelled down from the rafters. It leaned into the old-school romanticism of this late Romance, and I left the theatre wondering why Pericles isn’t produced more often because it is surely Shakespeare’s greatest achievement.
* The 2015 Folger Theatre production of Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj and originating at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was completely different but equally successful. Haj used the narrator Gower and an onstage band to give his production the intimacy of a fable told over a campfire, as well as narrative consistency and forward motion. The director interestingly noted that, since plays are different in performance than they are simply being read, Pericles “bewilders scholars in a way that doesn’t bewilder audiences at all.”
THE WINTER’S TALE
* Berkeley Rep’s 1990 production of The Winter’s Tale was an example of a Romance where all the disparate elements failed to come together under a single unifying idea or style. It felt light and inconsequential, as if the story or indeed the entire Romance genre didn’t warrant serious attention; as if the whole production could be made as carefree and happy as the conclusion but without fully committing to the darkness of the journey that takes us there.
* Perhaps surprisingly, the most intense and satisfying production of The Winter’s Tale I’ve ever seen (so far) was a radical reinterpretation created by the Troubadour Theatre Company in Los Angeles: The Winter’s Tale combined with the groovy soulful music of Bill Withers to become A Withers Tale.
Matt Walker as Leontes and Beth Kennedy as Paulina, from the Troubadour Theatre Company production of A Withers Tale. Photo by Eddy Will. Courtesy of the Troubies.
The Troubies (as they’re affectionately known) are known primarily for such mashups of Shakespeare and rock n’ roll as Twelfth Dog Night, Much Adoobie Brothers About Nothing, As U2 Like It, and A Midsummer’s Saturday Night Fever Dream. As those titles suggest, Troubie productions, as conceived by Artistic Director Matt Walker, a graduate of Ringling Brothers Clown College and former student at Second City, are wildly comic creations, filled with fantastic physical comedy and amazing musical talents.
Yet Shakespeare’s Romance demanded something different. Walker told me A Withers Tale “was one of the more seamless integrations of songs and story” he’d ever worked on. Jealous King Leontes asks Hermione “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” She insists on her fidelity, singing that it’s “Just the Two of Us” but Leontes banishes her anyway, realizing too late that 1) there’s now no one to whom he can say “Lean On Me” and, in fact, 2) there “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” Finally, when he and his daughter are reunited with Hermione sixteen years later, happiness is restored in the finale reprise “Just the Three of Us”.
Bill Withers’ music underscored and unified Shakespeare’s disparate elements into a cohesive whole, but it was the production’s commitment to the darkness and emphasis on the tragic half of this “tragi-comedy” that pulled all of Shakespeare’s many strands and tonal shifts together so well.
Notably, A Withers Tale was also one of the Troubies’ least jokey productions, a tribute both to Walker’s intent to show off his company’s more serious Shakespeare abilities and his understanding that Shakespeare’s Romances — filled with magic, coincidence, tragedy, low comedy, unexpected reunions, and in Folger Director Michael Witmore’s words, “very clearly stories about things that happen that are impossible or just improbable” — demand, perhaps counterintuitively, great emotional commitment and seriousness in production.
⇒ Related: Folger Director Michael Witmore on his favorite Shakespeare play: The Winter’s Tale