Shakespeare Company and Mount Royal team up for The Winter’s Tale

A bear in pursuit is just one of the challenges in Bard’s lesser known work

Stage directions are a part of a script that is usually unseen and unheard by an audience. They are those hints inserted by a playwright to guide actors toward certain textual interpretations or to help with the physical mechanics of staging.

Leave it to Shakespeare however to write a stage direction that is actually well known and oft quoted: “Exit pursued by a bear.” It appears in The Winter’s Tale which is one of his less frequently produced works — and Natascha Girgis who directs The Shakespeare Company’s current production of the play posits that that particular stage direction might be one reason why.

“I’m always asked ‘How are you doing the bear?’” says Girgis with a laugh.

While in Shakespeare’s time a real bear might actually have trotted across the stage Girgis says “the imagination of the audience will come into play quite heavily” when the “bear” in her production makes an appearance.

The Shakespeare Company and Mount Royal University are joining forces for the first — and last — time to stage The Winter’s Tale as this year marks the closing of Mount Royal’s theatre arts program.

“I feel honoured to be directing one of the last shows that will ever come from Mount Royal’s last theatre class” says Girgis who trained there. “I’m thrilled to be allowed to be a part of the end of it.”

The cast of The Winter’s Tale features three professional actors (Haysam Kadri Myla Southward and Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan) alongside more than a dozen Mount Royal student actors onstage and about another 15 students operating backstage.

Besides providing a valuable mentorship opportunity Girgis says this collaboration allows The Shakespeare Company to mount a larger production than usual due to the student participation the many “bells and whistles” in Mount Royal’s Nickle Theatre — including surround-sound speakers to create atmosphere — and other amenities the university provides such as an extensive costume collection.

Girgis who played Tamora in last fall’s Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus says she is both “thrilled and terrified” to have the opportunity to direct The Winter’s Tale . In addition to dealing with the infamous bear she faces another challenge in presenting a play with two halves that are completely different from one another.

“The first half takes place in Sicilia which is dark and dramatic whereas Bohemia is pastoral. There’s comedy there’s music there’s colour. The play completely changes style-wise in the second act” she explains.

The King of Sicilia Leontes suspects his pregnant wife Hermione of having an affair with his childhood friend the Bohemian King Polixenes. His retaliatory actions cost him both his wife and children but magic and miracles offer a chance at redemption.

“There’s an opportunity for something to return to an individual who has experienced a great loss. All he requires is faith for it to return” says Girgis.

She speculates that this element of magic realism is another reason this play is not as well known as some Shakespeare works. “ The Winter’s Tale went through states of popularity. During the Romantic period it was hugely popular. At other times it was considered too passé too sentimental. But people are discovering it once again. People are looking to be swept away to be reminded that beautiful things exist if you open yourself to them” says Girgis.

As with most modern productions of Shakespeare’s work the script has been abbreviated to make for a more manageable run time. “People have been losing lines left right and centre. We want to make the story plot-centric” she explains.

She also hopes people will recognize the contemporary relevance of the story’s themes.

“The bigger theme of the piece is grace. Forgiveness mercy clemency — it betters us as a human species when we can get to a place where we’re in the presence of it” she says. “… It’s something we could use right now given the current political situation in parts of the world” she adds.