In Elizabethan England, you might have expected a play called The Winter’s Tale to be some kind of upbeat urban myth; fantasy folklore with a moral core. Shakespeare, subversive as ever, delivered the unexpected. “Basically, it’s two stories. That’s one of the reasons it’s been criticised over the years”, Chris Weber Brown tells me. He’s directing the play at Lewes Little Theatre, where the curtain rises at the end of this month. “There’s all sorts of drama and tyranny and horrible stuff in the first half.” Leontes, the King of Sicilia, thinks his pregnant wife has been having an affair with his old friend, Polixenes. Despite a total lack of evidence, Leontes orders the friend to be poisoned, puts his wife on trial for treason and abandons his new-born daughter. “The audience have to sit through this doom and gloom... we need to lighten up in the second half”, says Chris.
Shakespeare obliges by ensuring the baby daughter is adopted by an elderly shepherd and his clownish son, changing the mood instantly from dark tragedy to upbeat comedy. “We are going to have a sort-of rustic dance, I have a movement coach, and there’s going to be music and some singing.” Ultimately, the two stories are reconciled, as are the king and his daughter. “It all kind-of ends happily. But it isn’t really a happy ending in my view.”
Why does Chris think this 400-year-old play and its magical world is still relevant today? “I could see echoes of Leontes’s tyranny and power with present-day dictators who will hold on to power at any cost – any cost to the people and the country.” In fact, he’s updated the setting to 2019 and is working without a conventional set. “I just love the idea of having a completely open stage where you can move and you’re not constricted in any way. It’s the first time I’ve done it. Very often with Shakespeare, they have a raised dais at the rear of the stage – but I don’t want that. It’ll all be done by lighting.” This includes the famous stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. “A very dark shadow will move across the back”, says Chris. “We will not be having the bear because that would become rather like pantomime.” There’ll be quite a few other edits, reducing the play’s running time to around two hours, with the entire production being a very collaborative project. “If you get a really good group of people, good in the sense they’ll work together, that means so much. The director is not there to dictate. He’s there to try and draw out performances from the actors.”
The result, he hopes, will be well-suited to contemporary audiences. “It’s about the text and the feelings and the characterisations. Not the dressing-up box!”
The Winter’s Tale runs from 29th June until 6th July at Lewes Little Theatre. lewestheatre.org