THE WINTER'S TALE by William Shakespeare, directed by Craig Walker, with Matthew Gibson, Jennifer Roblin, Hollie Stewart, Emma Hunter, Keith Bennie, Ivan Sherry and Walker. Presented by Theatre Kingston at the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). Opens tonight (Thursday, December 9) and runs to December 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $23, stu $17, srs $20. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
The Winter's Tale isn't one of the Bard's top 10 hits, but as a play written near the end of Shakespeare's life, it's filled with the wisdom of forgiveness and grace. And for director Craig Walker, it's also a piece that's perfectly suited to the Christmas season.
Walker's company, Theatre Kingston, opens a production of The Winter's Tale tonight in Toronto, following a hometown run that's intrigued audiences with a story that begins in tragedy and ends in happy reconciliation.
At its centre is the jealousy of the Sicilian king Leontes, who turns on his faithful wife, Hermione, when he believes she's having an affair with his friend Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia. Deaths, angry fathers, reclaimed children and a trickster figure drive the sometimes fairy-tale plot along.
"The play makes strong references to the winter solstice, with the imagery first moving into winter and then out of it," explains Walker, a Queens University prof who's also playing Polixenes.
"The quiet references of moving from darkness to light are suggestive of an act of spiritual faith. The Christmas celebration, apart from its trite, commercial aspect, is related to a much older and deeper myth that has to do with the loss of vitality and faith and the recovery of those things in the new year."
To emphasize the link between the play and the holiday season, Walker opens the story at a Christmas party, with a focus on Leontes's young son Mamilius.
"The play erupts out of that party, so that when Leontes goes mad, the celebration is broken. The joyfulness returns at the end, with the restoration of order, reason and faith."
The company's previously brought two fine productions to Toronto, adaptations of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and James's The Turn Of The Screw.
Here, with a small cast, Walker's going for chamber Shakespeare. The audience is on both sides of the action, close to the performers and sharing their physical as well as their psychological space.
"One advantage of that staging is that viewers can watch in minute detail the psychological transformation of Leontes, whose sudden jealousy, difficult to comprehend, can in some productions alienate the audience."
Walker admits that what he loves about the play is its transition from tragedy to redemption.
"The piece moves from a nadir of tragic action, first to silliness and then ends with a scene that's spiritually uplifting. It's hard to dramatize things like forgiveness and redemption without descending into triteness and sentimentality, but Shakespeare finds the balance, giving us a sense of uplift that's not saccharine."