This is not so much a review of Bell Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Sport for Jove’s Twelfth Night, as a reflection on the dramaturgical process that occurs once a particular setting is chosen for a play that has been in production for many centuries. A production governed by a ‘concept’ is a slightly stronger path for a director to take than merely choosing a setting, although sometimes a particular period does function as a concept (Brook’s ‘Watteau’ Love’s Labours Lost being a famous example). At its best, the concept production creates the feeling of opening up fresh layers in a thoroughly known play.
The blessing of theatre audiences is that they come with a much less literal frame of mind than film audiences, but some kind of internal logic still needs to apply. The difference between a concept that works brilliantly and one that is less than that has much to do with how thoroughly the idea has been thought through, as it applies to all the many moments in the play. There was no point, for instance, at which John Galea’s 2012 steampunk Tempest stopped working, because steampunk by its nature provides a fantasy setting. A post-millenial Romeo and Juliet, however, may struggle with the lack of mobile phone communication between Romeo and Friar Laurence, even if Juliet’s dad has confiscated hers.
Bell Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale worked around a conceit of the set being a child’s bedroom. Mamillius both watched and participated throughout. The difficulty with this concept was that the show tended to get trapped by it. Having established the playroom/nursery as the only setting, there was nowhere for the story to go when it needed to be somewhere bigger. The trial scene was where this first became apparent. A tall man sitting in state on a tiny playroom chair works when he sits down, and makes himself look absurd and puerile, but gets tired over the course of a long scene. The court needed more people for the king to have power over, if his instability is to look genuinely dangerous. Bohemia, too, couldn’t look like a festival for a community, with so few participants and no sense of outdoors. For this concept to work, there were points where it needed to be left behind.
The last couple of decades have seen several productions of The Winter’s Tale centred on Mamillius as a framing device, including versions directed by Declan Donnellan, Nicholas Hytner and Edward Hall. This most likely has something to do with modern feelings about it being more appropriate to maintain a patina of melancholy than to treat a play in which a child dies as capable of a wholly happy ending. The boy was more explicitly a ghost in the Donnellan, more metatheatrical in the Hall version, where the actor doubled as Perdita. This use was more puzzling. Did he actually die? Was he real at all? Is he watching over his family post mortem a la The Lovely Bones? The best way I could find to engage with the concept was that the story was something like Pan’s Labyrinth (or my interpretation of that film on my darker days) – a child’s way to rationalise and resolve the trauma of living with an abusive father. Was he an ordinary kid who makes up a story of lost princesses and reconciliation to tell himself on the evenings when dad hits mum?
Sport for Jove’s Twelfth Night was just as decidedly a concept production, but in this case the idea had enough breadth to expand instead of confine the play. It took Charles Meere’s “Australian Beach Pattern” as its key image, except in that it was set very definitely in the 1960s rather than the 40s. The effectiveness of this concept lay in how many different ways it did thematic heavy lifting. For a start it kept the presence of the ocean a constant. Instead of Viola washing up, and then everyone retreating into parlour rooms, the fickle, influential, overwhelming sea was just offstage throughout. It made class just enough of a presence, as we watched people who never had to get into work clothes, and always had someone to bring them a cool drink. A dinghy brought on by Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew provided a delightful three wise fools in a boat image. Olivia’s little ceremony to scatter her brother’s ashes at sea gave the opportunity for a hilarious piece of business with Toby’s cigarette. A summerhouse pavilion transformed into a bazar, an ice cream cart became Malvolio’s prison; nothing was used only once, or in one way.
Whenever Twelfth Night is taken out of a medieval/Renaissance setting a way must be found to get Malvolio into cross-gartered yellow, which often fails to quite work. A 60s-style bathing costume does exactly what we need it to, being both plausible to him and ridiculous to us. The fear of losing someone to this ever-present ocean let Olivia be genuinely angry with Feste, when she didn’t know where he was, while Orsino could look spoilt and frivolous, making this same sea his playground. Finally, the idea of hurling beach balls into the audience during the curtain calls was a moment of much greater theatrical ingenuity than it seems. Drawing everyone into the one joyous game, the action let us all become insiders, irresistibly, to this world of Illyria, which can be so cruel to outsiders.