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The Winter's Tale On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's late romance

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First produced in 1610-11 and published in the First Folio of 1623, The Winter's Tale was based on Robert Greene's play Pandosto (1588).

Leontes, the King of Sicilia, believes erroneously that his wife Hermione is committing adultery with his old friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. He orders his friend Lord Camillo to kill him, though the latter is unconvinced by the accusation and the two escape together. Leontes, hearing of this, assumes that Camillo had been in league with Polixenes for ages. In his fury, he imprisons Hermione, and the stress causes her to go into labour. Her servant Paulina believes that showing the baby to Leontes will make him relent, but instead he asks Paulina's husband Antigonus first to kill her and then, when this request is refused, to abandon her in the wild. Hearing of this, Mamillius, the son of Leontes and Hermione, dies, and Hermione is also reported dead, leaving Leontes in despair. The abandoned baby girl is brought up by shepherds and named Perdita, who meets Polixenes' son Florizel, who eventually end up in Leontes' court to put everything to rights - not least the fact that Hermione is after all alive.

The only British feature film adaptation of the play was adapted by Frank Dunlop from his own 1966 Edinburgh Festival stage production, starring Laurence Harvey, Jane Asher, Jim Dale and Esmond Knight on 35mm, though with no attempt made at adapting it for the cinema it showed precious little evidence of the original production's merits.

The first British television production was directed by Don Taylor, starred Robert Shaw (Leontes), Brenda Bruce (Paulina), Patrick Macnee (Polixenes), Geoffrey Bayldon (Antigonus) and Ron Moody and was broadcast on 20 April 1962.

By general consent, the most wholly successful screen version of the play is Jane Howell's production for the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle starred Jeremy Kemp, Anna Calder-Marshall, Robert Stephens and comedian Rikki Fulton, and was broadcast on 8 February 1981. Given the BBC Shakespeare series' notoriously conservative approach, this was a daringly stylised adaptation, with incongruously plain, almost abstract sets incorporating cones and exaggerated perspectives, which paradoxically managed to create a strong impression of the play's pastoral setting. Strong performances were further enhanced by a playful visual approach, matching Shakespeare's verbal wit with similar visual puns. Not everyone appreciated Howell's approach, however, and one of the naysayers was the poet Stephen Spender, whose views were presented in an accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary broadcast the same evening.

A 27-minute animated version was made as part of the Shakespeare: The Animated Tales series, a co-production between BBC Wales and Soyuzmultfilm in Russia, directed by Stanislav Sokolov.

1968, d. Frank Dunlop (adapted from Edinburgh Festival stage production)

BBC, tx. 20/4/1962, d. Don Taylor
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 8/2/1981, d. Jane Howell

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, BBC2, tx. 7/12/1994, d. Stanislav Sokolov

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 8/2/1981 , p. Stephen Spender

Michael Brooke

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