Monday, July 13, 2009

The Winter's Tale

Once again, Sam Mendes has created a world in which I so very badly want to live. The other half of the Bridge Project in repertory at the Old Vic (the first being The Cherry Orchard), Mendes brings Shakespeare's story of lusty jealousy to life with the British cast members forming Sicilia, and Bohemia consisting of the Americans.

Like The Cherry Orchard, this production used breath-taking live music and candles to create a sense of time and place that invited the audience to enter the world of the story through laughter and tears. Once again Rebecca Hall was incredible, from her anguish as her husband accuses her of infidelity and takes away her children to her amazing beauty in the transfigured statue, where she absolutely glowed in a white dress, forgiving Leontes (Simon Russell Beale, also with yet another amazing performance).

In the second act, in Bohemia, the bawdy and freely happy Americans also inhabit a world filled with music, but of a more lively variety and, instead of somber candlelight, red, white and blue balloons fill the stage. Ethan Hawke, as the troubadour Autolycus, was a hilarious Jack Sparrow-esque conman, singing his lines in a flamboyant yet slightly bored with his situation tone. The cast partakes in one of the most ridiculous dances I have ever seen on stage during their country party: The women wear giant round balloons over their chests, and the men strap phallic balloons over their pants, and what follows is absolute comic absurdity.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in a talk with Tony Award winning cast member Richard Easton (Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, 2001), who played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale. It was wonderful to be able to listen to an older, very accomplished but humble actor reflect on his philosophies about acting over the span of his transatlantic career. Throughout the conversation he was insistent that the actor is not the focus of a play but merely a vessel for the text: "The artist is the playwright. The medium is the actor."

It was clear he had no patience for young, self-absorbed actors, who, he felt, misunderstood what acting is about, and if they wanted to be self-serving egomaniacs they should stick to film directing and leave acting well enough alone. When I asked how he and his fellow cast mates are able to keep the story and characters so fresh and alive after performing them often twice a day, around the globe, for nearly a year, he almost chided me for thinking that they could do anything but. He again insisted that you just have to do the text, and that each time you start with the first line, you are starting the story for the first time. He also admitted a love for seeing young people in the cheap, student-priced seats in the balcony at the Old Vic peering over the railing to look down for a better view of the stage: "The young faces..." he said almost wistfully but still with a straightforward edge, "It enables you to believe you are doing magic."

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