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Sometimes it takes a break with ingrained tradition – perhaps with a little dose of a thought-provoking piece on gender relations to boot – to provide a familiar play with an element of rediscovery. Or certainly that’s what I think happened yesterday when I went to the penultimate performance of The Winter’s Tale at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

I’d had a bout of insomnia on Friday night and found myself reading, among other things, a piece by The Guardian‘s Finance and Economics Editor Heidi N. Moore titled “Little surprise here: women expected to do more at home – and at work“. I think it’s worth sharing because it seems to me to explain quite a bit about the glass ceiling in the workplace. In particular Moore’s piece delves into the murky world of the currency of the “favor” and how women are expected to do more because their favors don’t count within masculine currency: “It all comes down to the fact that women are essentially locked out of the favor system that helps men get ahead; many powerful men keep a running tally in their heads of who owes them a favor and who doesn’t; women, because their favors don’t count, never even make it on to that list. Favors are a currency, and women are suffering from a currency crisis.” In many ways, the piece is irrelevant to Winter’s Tale, but less than two hours to curtain up I was in Sheffield on my laptop communicating with Moore via Twitter about the subject. So it’s fair to say I was attuned to contemporary relevances within the play, at least those regarding gender and I suspect a lot of how I read aspects of the production were influenced by the content of my head as the curtain went up.

Many aspects of Paul Miller’s production fell well within what has shaken down to be the tradition in staging Winter’s Tale in the twenty-first century. Most of the major productions I have seen – and all of the ones I can think of off the top of my head – have placed the play within at least a semblance of the Edwardian era. Certainly David Farr’s RSC production with Greg Hicks and Kelly Hunter (and Noma Dumezweni) and Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project production with Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall (and Sinead Cusack) used the Edwardian era, as did Miller. Quite why this has happened, I don’t know. It’s not an era that is associated with absolute power in the monarch which would make sense, although there are strict associations with hierarchy and class.

Importantly, however, Miller’s production broke with tradition in one major way with Leontes. In the programme, Daniel Lapaine was asked about the role’s notoriously difficult transition from normalcy to jealousy in a matter of seconds. Lapaine’s response reveals the deep fissures that exist between the practical approach to dealing with Shakespeare’s scripts and the academy’s, replying “People talk about that as a problem in the play, but a lot of criticism is written by academics who are reading it as a written document, not a play to be performed. It doesn’t matter to me because any emotional state can come out of the blue. “Lapaine’s performance was the first I’ve seen who eschewed assumptions about the character that have dominated critical discourse. John Nettles, Antony Sher, Greg Hicks, and Simon Russell Beale have all to a greater or lesser extent performed the transition as a quick onset form of mental illness and/or epileptic fit (reminiscent of the fit moment in Othello).

Lapaine, while clearly distressed and suffering from mental strain, never writhed around on the ground or had his eyeballs popping out of his skull, looking for all intents and purposes like he’s mad. Instead, his treatment of Hermione seemed quietly rational at the beginning of his breakdown. What he was doing on the stage was bullying his wife – verbally, of course – but accusing her of the most foul crimes in the steady tones of the mentally abusive husband who is so convincing in his accusations that even his wife almost believes him. I don’t think for one second that Claire Price’s Hermione was about to believe she had been unfaithful, but I describe it in this way because there was something about the way Lapaine was delivering this passage that almost convinced me that Hermione had been having an affair with Jonathan Firth’s Polixenes (given that Firth has become, since I last saw him on stage in Shakespeare as Henry VI, even more of the spitting image of the famous Mr Darcy, who would blame her? I almost wanted her to have been since Leontes was being so foul to her!)

It was when these series of thoughts occurred as I was watching the interplay between Leontes and Hermione that I started to re-think the function of women in the play. In fact, I had gone into the theatre thinking about power politics and Shakespeare’s obsession with interrogating the concept of absolute rule with Leontes yet another specimen (I have also been to David Tennant’s Richard II more than once in the past fortnight so that was affecting my perception of Winter’s Tale, at least at the beginning).  Claire Price’s Hermione was full of dignity as she was accused of having been “sluiced” by her husband’s best friend. There was a beautiful moment when she stood there, absorbed the shock like it was an every day occurrence (perhaps also heightening my perception of this being an abusive relationship) and comforted her maid. She had absolute faith that this, too would pass.

What I discovered in performance about the play, seeing it through this prism, was also how horrendous Leontes is to Paulina. He also verbally abuses her in the course of the middle acts and, while she takes aim and fires at him, Leontes’s view is entirely patriarchal. Both Hermione and Paulina are their husband’s property – Hermione he has disposed of via prison and Leontes makes it clear that Antigonus must bridle his wife’s tongue was well. (Something that Antigonus says he cannot do, which must make him a feminist in today’s parlance).

What I also discovered through watching Miller’s production was that Leontes’s attitude towards women shifts. This clearly happens in the text after Mamillus dies and Hermione is supposed dead, but reading through performance it was clear that Paulina also punishes Leontes at this moment. Lapaine was physically cowering and shaking at every point Paulina drove home. It was in this moment that the women of the play turned the tables on the men. And it was only when Leontes stopped treating women like chattel that the play’s journey took its turn towards its healing end.

It also struck me that Hermione disappears for a significant length of time in this play, at about the same place in the play – the end of Act Three – that ALL of the women go missing in King John. The second half of King John has no women in it and the parallels between Hermione and Constance are grounded in grief and loss. But England is in a terrible state in the second half of King John, arguably because there are no women challenging and keeping a check on the men (this may be stretching the point, but I do think it’s significant that Constance, Eleanor and Blanche are all gone by the end of act three). Winter’s Tale, however, has Paulina who clearly provides a check on Leontes’s actions and, in fact, seems to guide him in his rule. Paulina is there providing comfort and advice to the king and the king is now listening to the lone – so he thinks – woman at his court. With his change of attitude, Leontes is eventually reunited with his wife and daughter. As his reward for no longer viewing women as second class citizens.