The Winter's Tale - interview

Suspicious minds

The Winter's Tale

Steve Cramer talks to Liam Brennan and Selina Boyack about love, jealousy and The Winter’s Tale.

Ever dealt with the green-eyed monster? If not, you’re lucky, but most likely you have. Mark Thomson, never one to shirk the “difficult” plays of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, has chosen to begin the Lyceum’s autumn season with The Winter’s Tale. Aside from “Exit, pursued by a bear”, possibly the most bizarre and oft quoted Shakespearean stage direction, the one thing most folk know is that the whole action is motivated, and indeed perpetuated for 16 years of stage time, by a single jealous rage from the King Leontes, over his queen Hermione’s treatment of his best friend Polixenes. It’s often treated as a thorny problem by directors that Leontes’ rage seems to come very quickly and from nowhere, while Hermione’s passivity in the face of it all is sometimes seen as unduly saintly.

It’s a problem that Thomson has set out to resolve, quite characteristically, by some ingenious casting. In Liam Brennan and Selina Boyack, Thomson has acquired a dream ticket, probably the highest quality pairing of leads you’ll see this year. How does Brennan resolve the issue of his sudden jealousy, which leads to immeasurable destruction, even deaths among those around him? ‘When I first read it I thought, this is going to be so boring to see this guy running about shouting and raging. But then I just realised, well if this is a good strong modern relationship, the best way of thinking about this thing that happens to him is as a kind of illness,’ he explains. ‘If it is a great relationship there’s a lot of grief and pain and anger for him as well as confusion. I think he’s ill – there’s a condition called morbid jealousy. Apparently it affects middle-aged men more than others, where they hire private detectives and so forth, because they’re convinced their partner’s cheating on them.’

Which is all very well, but what of Hermione’s response? Boyack feels her character has good reason to remain calm. ‘There’s a lot in the play about the division between the public and the private. The point about the situation she’s in is that she gets accused, and even stands trial in public. It’s the kind of situation where you don’t let on about how angry you are, it’s where you’re thinking “just wait until I get you home” but she doesn’t get there,’ she says. ‘Besides I’ve been in this situation, I’ve been faced with a very jealous rage, and it’s just like a madness. You almost have to treat the person like they’re a mental case. You become very calm and very clear, but mainly very calm. If you shout back at them, it’s just going to escalate, and you’re not going to be heard. So she’s completely rational, like a grown-up with children.’

Ultimately, though, the play’s action moves from tragedy to forgiveness, and Brennan feels that this might be a reason why it is not often performed, in spite of some of the richest poetry in its language that the bard would ever pen. ‘It’s biggest charm or magic is that it’s about redemption,’ he says. ‘People think that a theme like that is unsexy and unfashionable, but redemption and forgiveness are radical ideas.’

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 21 Sep–Sat 20 Oct

The Winter's Tale

  • 3 stars

Lyceum artistic director Mark Thompson takes on Shakespeare's unclassifiable tragicomedy 'The Winter's Tale', a story of jealousy, love, rage, hope and redemption in the vividly contrasting lands of Sicily and Bohemia.


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