The Winter’s Tale: On Trial (Now With 50% More Bear)

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The Winter’s Tale: On Trial (Now With 50% More Bear!)

By Maria Shmygol (The University of Liverpool)

At the beginning of November, after many months of planning and organisation, the University of Liverpool’s  ‘Winter’s Tale Festival’ unfolded with an array of exciting events. The Festival was envisaged by my supervisor, Dr Nandini Das, many moons ago, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s wonderful play. The line-up included a film-screening of Greg Doran’s fantastic 1998 RSC production of the play followed up by a master-class with Alexandra Gilbreath who played Hermione. We hosted a two-day symposium devoted entirely to The Winter’s Tale and all of its many complexities, the second day of which coincided with an evening of enthralling poetry and music with the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and virtuoso musician and actor John Sampson. Numerous other cultural events were dotted around Liverpool, such as a guided tour of ‘Four Shakespeares and Another Winter’s Tale’ at the Walker Art Gallery and a special concert at the Philharmonic Hall. As a member of the Festival organising committee, I was involved in helping out and publicising the events, but my particular role from the outset was to co-ordinate and organise postgraduate events. Among them were a photography competition, a special wintery session of the School of English Postgraduate Reading Group, a readers’ theatre production of the play, and the very last event on the Festival calendar; a Christmas party, which will feature an array of Shakespearean cakes, music, and decorations.

Although it was by no means ever a favourite play of mine, having read it more times than can possibly be considered healthy over the course of the past few months, and having gone to many events devoted to The Winter’s Tale, I can safely say that it’s grown on me. With every event on the Festival schedule, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into a world of Shakespearean romance, imaginary sea-coasts, angry bears and mysterious awakenings of statues made of stone – least of all because I had the pleasure of playing the part of Hermione in the rather unorthodox postgraduate readers’ theatre production of the play. The idea for this initially came from performing a simple (if that’s ever a term that can be applied to The Winter’s Tale) script-reading of the play, but when we found out that the Liverpool University Drama Society were putting on a production, we decided that perhaps it would be wiser to take a slightly different approach, and offer something previously unseen to the unsuspecting audience we were planning on luring into the Moot Room of the Law Department, where our performance would take place. Bearing in mind our lack of acting talent, we thought that rather than taking it too seriously, we should approach both the problems of the play and the problems of our ‘acting’ in a light-hearted way. This is how we arrived at ‘The Winter’s Tale: On Trial’.

Michelle Yost, who is technically a science-fiction scholar, was very enthusiastic about rewriting the play and writing new trial scenes in which a modern-day judge, prosecution and defence would talk the audience through the problematic elements of the play, and put on trial particularly bothersome characters such as the bear, Time, and the statue in light of 400 years of performance history and criticism. Luckily, we even had the perfect setting – the Moot Room of the Law Department, complete with boxes for the prosecution and defence, and some impressive floor-to-ceiling wooden panelling. We hit various obstacles along the way, least of all because Michelle was back in Ohio for the summer and conversations about the rewrite had to be held via email, and finding readers to take part was proving rather difficult. Of course, using the clout that we have, most of our early modern colleagues were persuaded into taking part, and we had a great response from students in the Law Department. After the long process of abridging the play (or rather savaging it like the bear does Antigonus), we whittled it down so that the new trial scenes and the ‘evidence’ brought forth by Shakespeare’s words could be presented to our readers in a script of manageable proportions – which was important because very few of us involved in the production were actors, or had even been in a production of any type before (in my case, with the exception of being an extra in a school pantomime, which is hardly a claim to acting experience).

Due to a lack of funds for elaborate costumes, and the extensive doubling of parts in the play, Michelle had the ingenious idea of bringing in her super-human collection of hats and scarves (and encouraged the rest of us to do likewise with any props or fancy-dress accoutrements we had) so that while we would all dress in black and grey, the hats would enable the audience to differentiate the multitude of different characters. The 150-something slide PowerPoint which accompanied the production also helped with this; it allowed us to project mug-shots of all the characters as they appeared, together with various bits of trivia and humorous summaries of the action taking place.

There is a part of the play that had always fascinated me, and baffled Michelle: the bear. We had many conversations over coffee about the creature, and eventually became rather obsessed with bears. (This was probably the reason why there was so much video and photographic evidence brought in against the bear, mostly from past productions, but also a few silly ‘this is what it could have looked like’ shots of the infamous John West tuna advert in which a bear begins boxing with a fisherman, and a clip of Nicholas Cage in a bear -suit from The Wicker Man (2006) re-make).The poster for our production, artfully crafted at an ungodly hour by my own fair hand, boasted that our re-writing of the play now featured ‘50% more bear’. That pesky, ravenous creature had proven distasteful to the likes of McNamara Morgan, Charles March and David Garrick, who discarded the ursine trouble-maker in their eighteenth-century re-writings of The Winter’s Tale, but rather than shunning it, Michelle and I decided to embrace it, and give it more opportunity to step into the limelight. In preparation for this, the whole cast pitched in to help; a larger-than-life papier-mâché bear-head was made (and transported from Manchester to Liverpool on the train during morning rush-hour, with many apologies to commuters), brown woolly mittens were purloined, and a selection of fine fur coats were loaned to us by Leontes’ mother. The effect was spectacular; a giant furry creature somewhat tentatively chasing our Antigonus from one side of the Moot Room to the other and then gingerly taking the stand in the witness box was surely a sight never envisaged by the University when they commissioned the building of the Law Department!

The props involved in my own costume as Hermione were rather interesting; while I had the quintessential baby-bump made of scarves rolled up and tucked under my t-shirt, we had some trouble deciding what should be done about baby Perdita once she was born – should she be a baby doll wrapped in swaddling clothes (which would involve trying to procure the said doll) or could we just use a bundle of scarves wrapped tightly in swaddling-clothes? Initially, in the first rehearsal Michelle brought along a teddy-bear, which we were to use in place of the baby until a suitable alternative could be made available, but as time went on we grew fond of the creature, and decided to keep it in the production by giving it to Mamillius to play with at the beginning of the play. On the day before the production, our female Mamillius was fiddling with the bear and putting a hat on it, when a thought struck me – why not have him playing with the bear on-stage while he tells me, his mother, his wintery sad tale? This would be a great way of foreshadowing our all-important bear. But why not go one better and have an even stronger ursine presence on our stage?  After playing with the bear, Mamillius would pull off a white pashmina from around my neck and wrap it around the bear after making gestures towards my baby-bump, leaving the creature behind on a chair as he is led off-stage. In the following scene we had Emilia pick up the bear-child and hand it over to Paulina and an infinite quantity of giggles ensued every time reference was made to the likeness between the baby and Leontes. Our Perdita, doubled from Mamillius, would emerge again wearing the same white pashmina in which the bear was wrapped.

Indeed, ours was a rather unorthodox re-telling of The Winter’s Tale, and given the fact that the majority of our cast had never really acted in anything before, there was an air of apprehension before the final performance (mainly because several of our supervisors, and both the former and current Head of Department were sitting in the audience). I’m happy to say, that in the end everything came off brilliantly – especially the bear – and we all had so much fun with it. I found it rather pleasantly odd though, while standing behind the lectern we had placed in the witness box and giving Leontes my ‘Since what I am to say must be but that…’ speech, that I had stood at that very lectern several weeks ago to give a lecture to the first-year BA students, and now I was the Queen of Sicilia, pleading with a jealous tyrant for my honour, not in a lecture theatre, but in a court of law. Such is the transformative power of Shakespeare, I suppose!


Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Humphrey

    Saw Greg Hicks as Leontes at the RSC a couple years back, was a champion performance as usual, even if it was bang in the middle of July. Your production sounds cool as hell, wish I could have seen it. You definately know how to push tickets; I saw ‘with 50% More Bear’ and was SOLD

  • Pamela Berkman

    This sounds delightful! Wish I had been there. (I live in San Francisco.)  The most successful Shakespeare events, I think, are those that make his work accessible, fun, and flexible, reminding us that in his time he was considered no high-brow, inaccessible, unreachable intellectual, but a down-and-dirty popular entertainer.

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