“This is a play that’s haunted me for 40 years,” says Paul Miller who is directing The Winter’s Tale at the Crucible this autumn.
“It’s difficult picking a favourite Shakespeare play but there’s something unique about Winter’s Tale,” he continues. “It goes to extremes of emotions. There is tragedy - and there’s nothing in the tragedies that goes further than the first half of Winter’s Tale and then the second half takes us into an area of comedy that is as deft as anything in As You Like It.
“To bring all this together in the end confirms what a writer he is. It’s possibly the second to last play he wrote and it shows he was at the height of his powers. You would have to have a high level of confidence to attempt this.”
The play King Leontes of Sicilia become possessed with jealousy and becomes convinced that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has had an affair with his best friend, Polixenes.
Hermione is thrown in prison and when she gives birth to a girl the king declares the baby illegimate and orders her to be banished to a desolate place. She fetches up in Bohemia where she is brought up as shepherdess.
“It’s a lot of people’s favourite play and there will be an equal number who haven’t seen it before and won’t be familiar with the story and about how it ends,” observes Miller. “That will come as a surprise to them because it’s not called a tragedy or a comedy they won’t be able to guess and I think this is very exciting.”
Miller points out that The Winter’s Tale is a rare example of a story Shakespeare invented himself rather than plundering other sources. A popular pastoral romance, Pandosto, is the basis of the plot.
The play is set in two European kingdoms in an undefined time so how will that be realised in this production?
“We have chosen Sicily for Sicilia and the costumes are pre-19th century Italian military,” says the director. “As for Bohemia in the second half people won’t be able to place when or where this place is. It’s a rural festive setting with people wearing costumes from all over Europe. It’s timeless.”
There will be the minimum of props and scenery. “We have talked about delivering Shakespeare that’s direct and clear and in the moment and not dominated by over clever design ideas,” explains Miller.
“This play is about the strength and power of the imagination and quite a lot of characters ask the audience to imagine things they have seen. It demonstrates the power of language and storytelling.”
Miller, an associate director of Sheffield Theatres, directed DH Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law at the Crucible earlier this year.
“The staging of The Winter’s Tale will be very different from The Daughter in Law. “We are finding you can do anything on the Crucible stage,” declares Miller. “It’s risky to do what we are doing with this production with a big open bare stage but equally it was a risk to do DH Lawrence set in a miner’s cottage which filled the stage.”
And how will he approach one of the main things people remember about Winter’s Tale, the stage direction,Exit pursued by a bear.”It’s the most famous stage direction of all and of course we have had to think about it. All I will say is I am going to do it realistically,” he says enigmatically
The Winter’s Tale is at the Crucible from October 2 to November 2.