The third act of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale contains what may be the most famous stage direction in English-language drama: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The character making this unfortunate exit is Antigonus, a courtier who has just fulfilled his commission to abandon the infant Perdita in the wilderness of Bohemia. “Poor wretch,” he laments over the child, “That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed / To loss and what may follow!” The sudden appearance of the bear following this speech is only one of the challenges of interpreting The Winter’s Tale. Like the surprise bear attack, the play itself is an unsettling mix of comedy and tragedy.
In staging The Winter’s Tale for the Bridge Project—an American-British collaboration now beginning its world tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—director Sam Mendes (who also directed the films American Beauty and Revolutionary Road) answers the challenge of the bear scene with typically impish invention. There is no “pursuit,” and we never see Antigonus “exit”: the bear—an actor in a bearskin costume—lumbers onstage behind his oblivious victim and looms there throughout Antigonus’s farewell address to the infant. There is a flash of “lightning” as the animal closes in, followed by darkness (which obscures both actors’ exits). The hulking ursine figure is at once ridiculous and haunting, and Mendes’s staging allows these competing impressions to play out together.
The busy, fantastical plot of The Winter’s Tale sets it in stark contrast to the other half of the Bridge Project’s double bill, Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (in a new translation by Tom Stoppard). Where the characters of The Winter’s Tale suffer from impetuosity, Chekhov’s pre-Revolutionary Russians are undone by their tragic failure to act. But, like The Winter’s Tale, this last play of Chekhov’s combines humor and pathos, often in the same moment. Setting the two works side by side, on the same stage and with the same cast, draws them into a rewarding conversation—one that is enriched, and occasionally obscured, by Mendes’s boldly theatrical direction.
The productions are stitched together by a Shakespearean epigraph projected onto the set at the start of each: “O call back yesterday, bid time return.” (Bringing in a third text, Richard II, as a means of interpreting these two is the kind of overreach Mendes seems unable to resist.) Both The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale are suffused with longing for the past: in Chekhov’s play, a family of Russian gentry reunite at their estate just as it is about to go up for auction to cover their debts. Retaining ownership would require leveling the cherished orchard to lease plots of land to middle-class weekenders. But the upper-class characters are hopelessly attached to the past, and the members of the servant class (epitomized by the faithful, elderly steward Firs) are nearly as dependent on the outmoded system of patronage and service. Everyone takes refuge in denial except the ambitious Lopakhin, a peasant’s son who heeds his own advice and buys the estate out from under the astonished owners.
The attitude toward the past in The Winter’s Tale is more complex than the hopeless nostalgia of The Cherry Orchard. Though Shakespeare’s characters long for simpler times, they make the difficult journey through sin and suffering to redemption. Mistakenly convinced that his queen, Hermione, has been unfaithful, the jealous King Leontes imprisons her, turns on the king of Bohemia (his imagined rival), causes his own son’s death, and banishes his infant daughter. He sends for an “oracle” that he expects will confirm the righteousness of his actions. Instead, the oracle declares him “a jealous tyrant” and proclaims, “The king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.” Only after the death of his son and the apparent death of Hermione does Leontes recognize his guilt, and he devotes himself immediately to penitence: “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation.”
Presented in repertory, these classic plays resonate in unexpected ways. Both have a lengthy pastoral scene at their center, bringing much needed sunlight into the gloom. And both plays are haunted by the memory of a dead son. Mendes looks for ways to emphasize these echoes, such as setting the opening of The Winter’s Tale in a nursery (just as Chekhov directs for The Cherry Orchard). But he also overinterprets some things better left ambiguous: he stages a tableau in The Winter’s Tale that makes Leontes’s baseless suspicions seem reasonable, and he leans too hard on the historical context of Chekhov’s domestic drama. Arresting visuals and consummate performances make both productions compelling, but The Cherry Orchard is less uneven and more authoritative.
The transatlantic cast is particularly strong on the British side: Simon Russell Beale brings heartbreaking depth to Lopakhin and Leontes, and Rebecca Hall’s intellectual gravity is perfectly suited to Chekhov’s Varya and the wronged queen Hermione. Sinéad Cusack is endearing as the hapless landowner Ranevskaya and bracing as the righteous Paulina, defender of Hermione. The finest of the American actors is Richard Easton (actually Canadian), humorous and affecting as The Cherry Orchard’s Firs and The Winter’s Tale’s kindly Shepherd.
In any Shakespearean comedy, class (according to Elizabethan norms) is part of the natural order that is disrupted and ultimately restored. In this case, the abandoned princess Perdita, though raised among shepherds, naturally attracts the love of a prince. Their romance seems to threaten order in Bohemia, but it brings new peace with Sicilia, where Leontes reigns, once Perdita’s true identity is revealed. In contrast, at the end of The Cherry Orchard, the social order is permanently upset. For Chekhov, writing in the years before the Russian Revolution, the class system is part of the problem. It has allowed the landowners, Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev, to resist responsibility, and Firs is so devoted to his servile role that he refers to the 1861 emancipation of the serfs as “the disaster.” What hope there is for the future is the result of the gentry being forced from their privileged place to seek their fortune in the wider world.
Chekhov’s characters make frequent reference to the Christian calendar and to prayer, but their faith never spurs them to action. Expecting to be delivered from their predicament by a deus ex machina, they ignore Lopakhin’s suggestion that they sacrifice their orchard to save themselves. “I can’t make sense of my life without the cherry orchard,” Ranevskaya says helplessly. When, in the end, Lopakhin buys the estate for himself, his sense of triumph is mingled with regret. “If only all this could be over,” he wails, “and we could start our miserable, messed-up lives over again!”
The characters of The Winter’s Tale are nominally Greeks who pray to Apollo, but they possess a profoundly Christian sense of sin, grace, and hope. When Antigonus leaves Perdita in Bohemia, he refers to her “mother’s fault,” the alleged infidelity of Hermione for which the innocent infant is punished. The line—all but unheard as the bear looms in the background—gestures toward the universal human condition of sin and its grievous consequences. Antigonus’s death immediately thereafter is one of many “losses” that result from Leontes’s error—one that will not be redeemed. However, this is the moment when comedy begins to take the stage from tragedy. An old Shepherd, looking for his lost sheep, discovers Perdita. Meanwhile, the shepherd’s son has witnessed Antigonus’s death, and he gives a breathlessly silly account of it to his father. The Shepherd, in response, calls his son’s attention to the infant: “Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born.”
The collision of “things dying” and “things new-born” is a major theme of The Winter’s Tale, especially in relation to sin and redemption. Leontes’s years of penance lead to his “recreation” when at last he is reunited with, and forgiven by, his wife. Hermione’s survival is a surprise even to the audience—a true miracle of “grace” and “faith,” independent of the logic of the play. She explains that she was sustained by the hope that her daughter might someday be found. The “things dying” in The Cherry Orchard far outnumber those being born. In the play’s final moments, Firs, left behind by his former masters, collapses onstage as we hear the sound of the orchard being leveled outside. He dies clucking at his own foolishness: “My life’s gone by as if I never lived.” In contrast, The Winter’s Tale ends with resurrection and reconciliation. Not every loss is restored, and the time that has passed in grief cannot be called back. But both plays end looking hopefully toward a new beginning.
Related: The Church Bells of Easter: Chekhov & the Path of Conversion, by Pierce Butler
The Catholic Bard: Shakespeare & the 'Old Religion', by Clare Asquith