The Winter’s Tale, The Globe, 24 May 2012
Renegade Theatre’s Yoruba reworking of Shakespeare’s late play was full of surprises. The first surprise was obvious from the very beginning of the performance. The second surprise was kept until the very end.
Although ostensibly set within Yoruba mythology, with Leontes named Sango, the spirit of thunder and war, and Polixenes cast as Ogun, the spirit of iron, much of the play looked like the standard version with no supernatural powers attributed to the characters.
This production began at the play’s midpoint. The figure of Time (Motunrayo Orobiyi) stood on the Globe balcony and explained the action taking place on the stage below as Antigonus set sail for Bohemia cradling the newborn baby Perdita.
The ship was represented by actors with paddles. After depositing the baby and a bag containing the gold and explanatory letter, Antigonus was killed by robbers rather than being attacked by a bear.
The Young Shepherd (Adisa Moruf Adeyemi) warily examined the bag, eventually discovering its rich contents. He and his father the Old Shepherd (Amos Oluronbi Olutokun) took the bag and baby into safekeeping.
Time announced the passing of fifteen years after which we were introduced to Polixenes (Olarotimi Fakunle). He was out hunting with his men in a striking blue outfit. They carried a whole dead deer on stage and danced in front of it with their muskets. Polixenes and Camillo (Olasunkanmi Adebayo) decided to investigate what Florizel was up to.
Autolycus (Adekunle Smart Adejumo) was female: yet another of the many female trickster characters that have cropped up in Globe to Globe productions. She posed as a robbery victim to trick the young shepherd. As he helped her to her feet she reached into his back pocket and stole his purse. But on examining it she found that it contained only scraps of paper. This was comical reversal of fortune that explained Autolycus’s subsequent behaviour towards the young man and his father.
Perdita (Oluwatoyin Alli-Hakeem) in her green fake fur and Florizel (Joshua Ademola Alabi) made a nice couple. Florizel’s disguise was not perfect, however, as his hat bore a distinct crown motif that alluded to his true princely status. Perdita brought fruit for the festival and danced alluringly for Florizel.
They were soon being spied on by Camillo and Polixenes, who was disguised under a huge coat. Some groundlings were invited on stage to take part in the festival dancing. Big colourful masquerade giants, large tubes of cloth with a person at the bottom, danced on stage and occasionally bent over so that most of the tall tower was almost parallel with the ground. Autolycus was invited to take part in the festivities as a singer.
Polixenes anger at his son showed itself when he knocked Florizel’s hand away from Perdita and revealed that he had a gun under his coat, which he pointed at Florizel’s neck. His fury at the Shepherd saw Polixenes pick him up and almost throw him off the stage into the yard. The terrified servants showed their obedience by lying prone on the ground.
At Camillo’s suggestion Perdita and Florizel decided to flee Bohemia. They asked him how he had come to be in Bohemia in the first place, and at this point the action reverted in flashback to the beginning of the play.
In contrast to the blue colour scheme of Polixenes’ Bohemia, Leontes’ court in Sicily was themed in red. The King carried a short battle axe and fly-whisk that indicated his regal status. The initial dialogue was punctuated by two dances: one established the intimate relationship between Leontes (Olawale Adebayo) and Hermione (Kehinde Bankole) and then a second, more restrained one, indicated the close friendship between Leontes and Polixenes.
Dance was again used when Hermione, at her husband’s insistence, tried to convince Polixenes to prolong his stay with them. She danced modestly to please Polixenes and all was going well until Polixenes picked her up and carried her, a degree of familiarity that caused Leontes to look concerned.
Camillo had to endure Leontes putting his axe to his neck when angrily asserting Hermione’s unfaithfulness and ordering him to poison Polixenes. Then when Camillo explained to Polixenes why Leontes was so irate at him, the Bohemian put his gun at Camillo’s neck in annoyance at being so traduced.
Mamillius (Joshua Ademola Alabi again) danced as he began to recount his tale to his mother, shortly before Leontes stormed in and sent her to prison. Yet again the attendants lay prone on the ground in face of the King’s fury.
Paulina (Idiat Abisola Sobande), distinctive in her white bead headdress, brought Hermione’s newborn baby to Leontes and placed her on the ground. In the ensuing argument Leontes went to stamp on the infant, but Antigonus threw himself over the child so that the King’s foot made contact with his hunched back instead.
Hermione was brought in for trial wearing hand shackles. Her forceful protestations of innocence saw her throw off the shackles in protest. Instead of an oracle, a diviner cast a cowry shell necklace and interpreted the shape in took on landing to proclaim her innocence.
Hermione fainted on hearing of Mamillius’ death, and Leontes bowed his head in grief.
With Camillo’s flashback story told, the production took us forward in time to the coast where Florizel and Perdita were about to flee. At this point the interval came, but only after a long pause, as the cast had not realised that an interval had been scheduled. It took some time for the performance to be brought to its official pause.
The second half began at Leontes’ palace with the King, Paulina and two courtiers sat on a row of chairs. Leontes look suitably miserable until the arrival of Florizel and Perdita. News soon came of the arrival of Polixenes.
Leontes and his former friend faced off with battle axe and gun, but despite their initial grimaces they just bumped chests together and embraced like brothers. This reconciliation produced cheers from the audience.
Paulina noticed that Perdita had the same mark on her neck as Hermione and the action more or less froze as she spent a long time pointing this out.
The figure of Time narrated the subsequent reunion between Leontes and Perdita. We saw the shepherds rewarded with beads, using their new status to lord it over poor Autolycus and mocking his previous self-aggrandisement.
As the performance moved into its decisive final scene, a veiled figure was carried in and placed in position on a plinth. Hermione adopted a very realistic statue pose with her hand above her head. Paulina removed the veil from Hermione and an extremely moved Perdita tried to hug the statue, while Leontes also tried to touch it before being restrained.
Paulina chanted to make the statue come alive. In a moment of pure theatrical magic, the actress waited until a tear began to trickle down her face before she made her first movement and stepped down from the plinth. The tear drop and step appeared to be the result of the same instantaneous reanimation.
Hermione approached Perdita and greeted her warmly. Meanwhile Leontes ran around the stage in sheer joy facing away from the reunited mother and daughter.
The production delivered its final surprise. Just as Leontes turned round to face his wife, Hermione skipped back onto the plinth and turned to stone once again.
The look of dismay on Leontes matched the gasps of surprise from those in the audience familiar with the standard version of the play.
Paulina explained that Hermione had now been transformed into Oya, the spirit of the winds. This was the only point at which the mythological overlay to the play had any impact on the observed action. Oya is associated in Yoruba mythology with sudden change, which fitted neatly with her surprising reversal back into stone.
The production finished with a dance during which Autolycus, true to her trickster thief persona, tried to steal Leontes’ axe but could not lift it as it was too heavy.
The reordering of the scenes combined with the surprise ending that saw Hermione revert back to being a statue made this a striking production.
The joy of Hermione’s reunion with Perdita followed swiftly by the dismay of Leontes’ final and irrevocable loss of his wife made this even more of a tragicomedy than the standard version.
The audience was left perplexed as to whether they should feel happy or sad as the production ended with this unexpected twist in the winter’s tail. Both emotions were aroused in quick succession creating a collision between the two.