WELLINGTON REVIEW: This Long Winter (BATS Theatre)

Review by James Wenley

[Break the Cycle]

James Wenley reviews Sarah Delahunty’s latest play This Long Winter, which issues a renewed challenge for how we do Shakespeare in this country, and whether we should be doing some of his plays at all.

Here’s one version of the tale: a pregnant woman is falsely accused by her husband of being unfaithful. She remains dignified, even when her newborn daughter is taken away from her or when she is put on trial by her husband. When she learns that her firstborn son has passed away, she apparently dies of grief. Ashamed, her husband spends the rest of his days mourning for her and atoning for his sins. But sixteen years later – a miracle. The lost daughter returns, and when the husband visits a statue of his dead wife, she comes to back to life. She recognises her husband’s genuine grief, and forgives him.

Here’s another version of the tale: a man refuses to believe his wife. The shitty man does shitty things – orders that his new born daughter be abandoned, puts his wife on trial, and the stress of all this contributes to the death of his firstborn son. For her own safety, his wife fakes her death and goes into hiding for 16 years. Despite all this, she forgives the shitty man, and they renew their marriage.

What we are talking about is Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610).

The first three Acts are a claustrophobic case study of male paranoia, as King Leontes of Sicilia begins to suspect his wife Queen Hermione of cheating on him, cuckolding him, with his mate King Polixenes of Bohemia (today a cuck is still one of the worst things a man can be, according to the alt-right swamp). He rages, he fits, and she suffers. Hermione is declared dead, and her daughter is smuggled out of the kingdom. At the end of the play Leontes is taken to a see a breathtakingly life-like statue of Hermione. It is her, of course, and she forgives him, family reunited, order restored.

But it was only by the grace of genre that Hermione was saved for the apparently happy ending: if this play was a tragedy, rather than a tragicomedy, then there would be no 11th hour resurrection. In high school I learnt about Desdemona, and the dangers of misplacing your handkerchief (Although we spent most of that Othello year obsessed with what Iago’s motivation was – as if it wasn’t already obvious – rather than any deep discussion of gender-based violence. The plot is taken for granted. It’s just what happens in these sorts of stories.)

The Winter’s Tale is not Hermione’s story. She’s put into storage for sixteen years while the plot moves to Bohemia and becomes a kind of romcom between Prince Florizel (Polixene’s son) and a shepherd girl (who is Hermione’s daughter, Perdita). Just like the newly married Hermia and Helena in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, once she has fulfilled her narrative function, Hermione is side-lined, silenced, until she is pulled out again at the end to assuage male guilt.

Once you see it, it can’t be unseen.

In the programme note for This Long Winter, playwright Sarah Delahunty reflects that in coming to deeply understand over six decades of living that “discrimination against and inequality of women is universal”, she found herself “yet again outraged when contemplating the plot of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.”

This Long Winter is Hermione’s story. It is a critical feminist intervention, not only into the narrative of The Winter’s Tale, but also into the gender ideologies of Shakespeare’s works. Delahunty rejects the notion that Hermione would have been hanging out for sixteen years waiting for her husband to sufficiently atone; no, Hermione was out travelling the world, searching for her lost child. And in the process, she finds herself colliding with some of Shakespeare’s most problematic plots.

The BATS walls are overlaid with steel mesh, Michael Trigg’s design strongly signalling the themes of containment and control, the narrative prison yard that Delahunty has made it her mission to break Hermione free from. In the early scenes Delahunty sketches the ‘off-stage’ world of the first half of Shakespeare’s original text. Erina Daniels as Hermione begins in high distress after the accusations of infidelity have been first hurled at her. While generations of male Shakespeare scholars have praised the character for remaining saintly and composed in Shakespeare’s scenes, here we see the private Hermione, Daniels presenting an all too convincing churn of fear and trauma. It is made worse by the sliver of hope she holds onto, waiting, interminably waiting, for reason to return the world (“I have done nothing”, she states, as if that fact alone would be enough to stop Leontes’ baseless jealousy).

The opening is patchy, struggling to condense the plot points of Shakespeare’s play while introducing the relationship with the naïve servant Emilia (Alice May Conolly) as well as giving enough space for Hermione’s moments. The action is interspersed with a musical commentary sung by Carrie Green (composed by Holly Ewans), who hovers over the characters in her caged balcony. Accompanied by Charlotte Forrester on Cello and Isaac Thomas on Guitar, in isolation the songs are aching and evocative (“Is there an end to this long winter?” sings Green), but a clearer relationship could be established between the singer and the story.

After Hermione faints during the ‘off-stage’ Winter’s Tale plot, Paulina (Jean Sergent) hatches her plan to announce the Queen’s death, recognising that this will be Hermione’s only chance to live. Resolving to search for her daughter, Hermione soon finds herself intersecting with the plots of various Shakespeare plays. Michael Trigg’s costume design cleverly take this a step further, having Hermione come into contact with different productions of Shakespeare. While Hermione’s look evokes our renaissance expectations, when she arrives in Verona she finds herself in the world of 1950s Greasers. Samson and Gregory, two minor characters in Romeo and Juliet, discuss what they think women want, and it’s not pleasant. We’re in the early part of R&J, before Romeo falls in love with his Juliet, while he was still hot for Rosaline. We see Romeo (Sepelini Mua’au) practicing his pickup lines, revealing the script he uses on all his love interests (in Emelia, Delahunty introduces another sweetheart for him to charm and discard prior to Juliet, revealing the archetypal young stud to be a “what was your name again?” type guy).

Hermione’s next interaction is with Helena (Aimee Smith) from All’s Well that Ends Well. Hermione immediately pulls apart the baffling ‘bed trick’ – Helena’s ploy to get pregnant to Bertram so he will marry her. Hermione knows too well that that a child is not always enough to hold a couple in happiness and love. When Hermione later meets the Shrew Katherine (Hannah Kelly), who is being starved by her husband, Hermione asks her why she married him. Kate replies: “my Father sold me to him, of course.” We overhear a brief exchange between Titania and Oberon (who drugs and shames his wife) from A Midsummer Night’s Drean, and Hermione also finds herself deep in the quagmire of Measure for Measure’s plot. Hermione hopes that the child Juliet (Maggie Leigh White) is carrying will not be born a girl, because the world is so cruel to her sex. Hermione lends her own connotations when she’s moved to speak Shylock’s “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech. She despairs at the world of suffering that she encounters over her travels. We’re looking again at these plays through Hermione’s eyes. A tempest rips through the set, reflecting the psychological and physical violence enacted upon herself and the women she meets. Once you see it, it can’t be unseen.

That Delahunty could have chosen any number of other Shakespearean women to achieve the same purpose adds further discomfort. Desdemona. Lady Anne. Lavinia. Ophelia. (It is no coincidence that some of Shakespeare’s most admired and positive female roles – Viola, Portia, Rosalind – spend much of their plays passing as men.)

This Long Winter can whakapapa to the plays of Sarah Delahunty’s contemporary Jean Betts, Revenge of the Amazons (1983) and Ophelia Thinks Harder (1993), which have had long lives in high schools locally and internationally (and Delahunty herself has previously remixed characters from Hamlet and Midsummer in 2008’s 2b or nt 2b). Reimagining and rewriting the canon from the perspective of the female characters, Shakespeare was appropriated by Betts as an ally to counter the masculine norm on New Zealand stages, exemplified by Greg McGee’s state-of-the-nation rugby play Foreskin’s Lament (1980), whose renaissance thinking-man Foreskin was cast directly from the Hamlet mould. Shakespeare has long been a site of subversion and counter-discourse. And it is cyclical: This Long Winter being the latest to use Shakespeare to achieve feminist aims.

This Long Winter arrives during a cultural cycle where we are again reappraising the narratives that we produce and recycle. As the figure most people would probably suggest first if they were asked to name a playwright, Shakespeare is one of the most political sites within the theatrical world. In casting a woman and changing the gender of the title role of Hamlet, the recent Wellington Summer Shakespeare production asked if that choice had feminist implications. The success of the Pop-up Globe has demonstrated the latent colonially-tinted appeal for Shakespeare among Australasian audiences, but has also activated a generation of New Zealand theatremakers and academics, appalled by their discriminatory casting practices in the name of all-male traditions, who are rethinking how we do Shakespeare. In the recent edition of the Australasian Drama Studies journal, Dr Nicola Hyland wrote about “toxic Shakespearean masculinity” and demonstrated how Shakespeare Inc. has perpetuated ongoing colonial violence against Wāhine Māori in Aotearoa, which has caused her to “break up with Shakespeare.”

Last year’s backlash to the Pop-up Globe’s proposed #MeToo all-male The Taming of the Shrew popped the boil, and the company agreed to move forward with a commitment to 50/50 gender casting. The Shrew segment in This Long Winter is one of the most loaded. Petruchio (Barnaby Olson) enters a meta-defence of his actions, positing that there are other ways of reading his story. Their segment ends with Petruchio drip feeding Kate the lines for her infamous monologue at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

The campaign against the Pop-up Globe’s casting was a mission towards representation, asking that the Globe stage resemble our society as it is now. Within this was the implicit belief that Shakespeare was worth doing, it just needed to be made more accessible and equitable.

But the more radical feminist argument is why we would be bothering with Shakespeare at all.

A promotional video with comments from the This Long Winter cast and creatives sets up an antagonist challenge to the bard. There are questions around why Shakespeare is put on a pedestal when his material “is really problematic” and a comment about how disappointing many of his female roles are. One cast member expresses that “in my wildest dreams this could be some sort of death to Wellington’s obsession with Shakespeare or New Zealand’s obsession with the old or overseas.” Telling the story of Hermione as Wāhine Toa is a direct challenge to the exclusionary history of Shakespearean performance in Aotearoa.

For we have not been able to shake off the patriarchal and colonial systems, and part of the reason for this are the narratives that our culture keeps telling itself. Our stories are at fault. That’s what the “long Winter” describes – the systematic silencing of non-male stories and artists throughout history, and our continuing privileging of a particular canon over other voices and programming choices.

And maybe too often we do see it, but choose to look away.

The contradiction at the heart of This Long Winter, however, is the reverence the play holds for the Bard as poet while simultaneously resiling against his plotting. The play deeply rewards the Shakespearean expert, the fans who have absorbed the Shakespearean ideology – those who can recognise the quotes, can appreciate the intricacies of Measure for Measure, or have even got to the end of All’s Well that Ends Well. For all its its rich subversion and textual discourse, it plays into and is a product of the Shakespearean industrial complex, where knowledge of Shakespeare is prized above all else. The play may produce critical ways of seeing Shakespeare, but it requires a working knowledge of Shakespeare to follow along.

Nevertheless, Hermione’s quest is an enthralling and provocative journey of rage, sorrow, and hope. Directed by Delahunty and Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, one of the great pleasures of the show is the almighty ensemble of actors assembled for it. The production doesn’t always manage its shifts in tone, with the actors quite literally playing characters out of different plays. Delahunty’s play takes a tragicomic cue from the original, but some gags undercut the potential emotional heft, especially in the final scene.

Through observing the various Shakespearean plots, Hermione is empowered to change her narrative, and we return to Sicilia to rewrite the final scene. There is a promise of generational change, painting a utopia beyond the constraints of the fixed gender binary and roles. Hermione is conflicted about her daughter’s interest in Florizel (who already has a “well, actually” habit), and whether the cycle can be broken.

One character expresses the need to look to the past to learn what we did wrong, so that we can change. That’s an argument for this play’s reason for being. But the play also asks us to consider whether we need to tear down the Shakespearean scaffold (or at least make a bigger dent in the mesh), so that new stories can emerge and grow, so that the frost of this too too long winter might melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.

This Long Winter is presented by A Mulled Whine and plays at BATS, Wellington until 20 April.  

BONUS: Three threatre students at Victoria University of Wellington share their reviews of This Long Winter

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