*Originally written for Exeunt*
I told myself I wouldn’t mention the bear. It seemed like such a cliche, like something one would only question in order to fill time. But a discussion of The Winter’s Tale, or at least Lucy Bailey’s production of it, is pretty much impossible without an interrogation of what the creature and the infamous direction stand for. Bailey won’t reveal the details of how the bear is being tackled, but what it and the subsequent retelling represent is key to an understanding of this particular interpretation, presenting what Bailey hopes will be a demonstration of “Two Nation” Britain. According to Bailey, the bear is there “in order to cap the violence of the whole piece”. The physical form acts as “an expression of Leontes’ rage and his violence”, while the retelling of the story by the shepherd’s son is “comic…in order to give you that passageway. It’s like a second chance. You get a rebirth into a kind world again”.
With a week left until the company of The Winter’s Tale moves from the rehearsal room to the theatre, Bailey snatches half an hour during a lunch-break to talk about the Pre-Raphaelites, Bellowhead and the English seaside. An excitable chatter of actors and creatives can be heard in the background as we chat on the phone and Bailey is keen to share ideas on the play. For her, The Winter’s Tale does not, as many suggest, show two different worlds. Instead, Sicilia and Bohemia are “one and the same thing”, showing two communities divided by class. “One part of this society,” she suggests, “is not recognising or is very remote from the other part of the society”.
I bring up Disraeli’s Two Nations. It seems strangely prevalent for the year in which Britain has been declared the most unequal country in the West. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to say,” Bailey excitedly exclaims, “One lot lives like this and the other lot lives like that. It’s so obvious what Shakespeare’s doing… He’s saying here is a society, a community, that falls apart, which is the king’s court, and then let’s now look at the people they have ignored and overlooked.” She is clearly passionate about the people at lower rungs of this “Ivory Tower”. Many view the first part of The Winter’s Tale, set in Sicilia, as the ‘political’ section, with the Bohemian second part being the more human section. Bailey, however, sees the second half as the one with the more violently radical ideas, demonstrating the power of community and tradition; the Bohemians “know how to party better” because “their joy has real meaning”, seeing as this is the one period off work they get all year.
Translating these ideas onto the large canvas of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has provided a challenge. Compared to her own Print Room in London which, she says, “gave me chance to work in a flexible space and be very inventive from very little,” the Stratford stage is a far more ambitious undertaking, making it far harder “to light up the whole concept to an audience”. She needn’t worry, however. The last play Bailey staged there was the hit production of The Taming of the Shrew which, one could argue, is just as ‘problematic’ as the ‘problem play’ that is The Winter’s Tale. In the former, she worked against both misogynist and feminist readings of the play, and as far as I can tell a similar counter-argument is being presented by this reading of the later text, offering up an entirely fresh interpretation.
This blend of old and new, fresh and traditional, is the reason Bellowhead’s Jon Boden is on board. “I love their music.” Here, Bailey gets more passionate than in the rest of the interview, as her musical choices for the production embody her overarching ideas. “They celebrate English folk music unashamedly, and it’s that I’m trying to celebrate in Bohemia… We tend to be ashamed of our folk culture. In fact its almost non-existent.” Bellowhead update folk songs “from everywhere. Jon’s knowledge is astonishing. They use the old melodies but they obviously have their own imagination with those melodies… It’s fantastically percussive and energised and sexy and glorious, but it doesn’t disown it. I wanted that quality in our Bohemia.”
She describes how, considering inspiration is being taken from the Wakes week festival, this is a culture where dancing isn’t just entertainment but is violently necessary. “You have no choice. You have to do it… There’s an enormous pride in their dancing”. I’ve always seen the play as an exploration on the effects of jealousy, but looked at this way The Winter’s Tale becomes not the story of Leontes but the story of Perdita. Bailey’s interpretation, therefore, is a celebration of how younger generations can be both progressive and respectful of traditions. With the popularisation of folk music over the past few years by the likes of Laura Marling, Ben Howard and Bon Iver, this production feels particularly timely.
Does this popularisation of folk culture represent a sort of New-New-Romanticism, I wonder? “Yes, and I think it’s very prescient now. My son is 17 and adores Bellowhead. He adores Irish folk bands and English folk bands and uses them as actual currency, not as some freak thing. So the popular appeal now of folk music is encouraging, and that celebration is at the heart of the celebration in Bohemia. Myself and my team are bringing that to the stage.” And with that, Bailey heads back to rehearsals, having demonstrated The Winter’s Tale is a play about far more than an infamous stage direction.