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Actors from the London Stage bring “The Winter’s Tale” to Notre Dame

Michelle Fordice | Tuesday, September 9, 2008

That time of year has come again. Notre Dame students are falling into a rhythm with their classes, summer is putting out its last few efforts of good weather, and it is time for the Actors from the London Stage to grace Washington Hall once again. This season they bring Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” one of Shakespeare’s later romantic works with a tragic center, but a happy ending.

The Actors from the London Stage are associated with the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, which serves as their booking agent and home in the United States for their annual tour, but are actually housed and work in London. In addition to their performances, they visit and teach classes at universities. The actors hail from such companies as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and have performed on stages in the West End and around the world. Since AFTLS performances do not use a director, the actor’s skill is on full display.

The AFTLS are recognized for their minimalist, but effective, production style. While there are more than 25 characters in Shakespeare’s original play, the company consists of only five actors. This year they include Erin Brode, Matthew Douglas, William Hoyland (best known for his Shakespeare, but also has appeared in films such as “Gandhi,” “Hell Boy” and “A Mighty Heart”), Robert Mountford (anyone here in the fall of 2006 will recognize him from “Hamlet”), and Eunice Roberts.

The stage is kept nearly bare; one of the only set pieces for their production of “Romeo and Juliet” was a standard ladder to serve as the famous balcony. The actors remain on stage for the entire performance, sitting at the back if they are not performing. Props are also kept to a minimum; the swords in their 2006 production of “Hamlet” were symbolized by a glove on the actor’s hand. The actors wear basic, functional, modern clothing and simply add a small piece or prop to indicate the character they are portraying.

The actors provide all of their own sound effects as well. In the 2007 production of “Macbeth,” actors played simple instruments behind their colleagues to create some of the play’s eerier moments.

With so few embellishments, the production is clean and centers on the acting and the language rather than the decoration. Sometimes it has its issues – there are so few environmental cues that a first time viewer of Shakespeare may get lost – but to even the recently initiated it is an interesting new perspective.

Not only do the actors create their environment onstage in front of the audience, but they try to involve their audience as much as possible. In several of the productions, the house lights are left high, the actors walk through the audience to get to the stage, and on occasion the characters directly address the crowd.

While “The Winter’s Tale” is one of Shakespeare’s less famous plays and not as infused into our pop culture as past selections, such as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” don’t let its unfamiliarity scare you away. It is filled with jealously, love and betrayal. “The Winter’s Tale” straddles the line between comedy and tragedy. It is not as farcical and light as “The Comedy of Errors” and a “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” dealing with violence and an ever-present sense of death, but neither is it as tragic as “Macbeth” and “Othello,” ultimately ending joyously.

“The Winter’s Tale” opens with Leonates, king of Sicilia, trying to convince his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, to remain at his court for a longer visit. In one last attempt, he sends his pregnant wife Hermione to try to persuade his friend to stay. But while she only speaks to Polixenes, Leonates believes she is too easily successful and accuses her of adultery, plotting to kill his friend. Polixenes escapes, but Hermione is imprisoned, where she gives birth to her daughter. Leonates orders the baby – which he believes to be a bastard – to be killed.

Though an oracle declares Hermione innocent and she finds an advocate in another lady of the court, Paulina, Leonates refuses to rescind his accusation. Before anything can move forward, a servant announces that Leonates’ son has died. This brings the king to his senses, but not before Paulina can announce to the court that Hermione has died. Meanwhile Antigonus, Paulina’s husband charged with the killing of Hermione’s daughter, finds himself unable to complete his task. Unfortunately, he ends up being chased by a bear (and later drowns in a storm), forcing him to abandon the baby after naming her Perdita. The play then passes through the next sixteen years, leaving in question Perdita’s fate.

AFTLS performances become more than a show; they are a conversation with the audience. A refreshing change from many Shakespeare performances, which turn the plays into true period pieces or find other ways to embellish the stage, these productions feature nothing but Shakespeare’s words and the actor’s ability. The usual excellence of the company, paired with the freshness of “The Winter’s Tale” to most audience members, is a sure sign of a good show this week.

Considering the usual minimalism of the Actors from the London Stage’s productions, one can’t but look forward to see how they handle one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

“The Winter’s Tale” will run in Washington Hall from September 9 until September 11. To purchase tickets for these performances, contact the DPAC ticket office at 574-631-800. Tickets are $12 for students and $18 for faculty and staff.