By Erica Whyman
When the Royal Shakespeare Company new production of The Winter’s Tale airs on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer as part of BBC Lights Up season, it will be a unique occasion: the first time the RSC has premiered a stage production on screen .
We hope to recreate a sense of sharing space, of making a relationship with the play and the actors as the evening unfolds. It is a gift to have been able to collaborate like this, because, as I write, this is the only way this production will ever find an audience.
In three short days we filmed The Winter’s Tale in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, with beautiful design, lighting, music, costumes, dancing and song – all challenges in a pandemic, miraculous to see on a stage after this ghastly year for the performing arts.
Yet the performers and creative team have ached for the ingredient we still cannot have – a live audience.
We were in our last week of rehearsals when the theatres closed over a year ago. We thought we had got to know one another, had developed our understanding of this remarkable play, shaped a production and were ready to find out what landed with an audience, what needed greater clarity or a different tempo. Little did we know that we were only beginning to know The Winter’s Tale and indeed one another, and we would find out if it worked on television.
The RSC cancelled three productions on a national and international tour and a season in the Swan Theatre, our second house in Stratford, that had been four years in the making. We cancelled a season in our studio theatre, The Other Place, and we temporarily closed Matilda The Musical in the West End.
It was a frightening time, as we realised that theatres everywhere, and the freelance workforce that brings life to our stages had been plunged into economic catastrophe. The RSC decided that it must retain a company of actors, to be at the heart of whatever we were able to achieve. Throughout 2020 they recorded sonnets, helped with home-schooling from Blackpool to Truro, and performed Shakespeare and new work in our gardens in Stratford.
By Autumn we had growing confidence that we would re-open with The Winter’s Tale in March 2021. Whilst working on a Christmas concert, we suffered bitter disappointment as we understood the impact of the appalling second wave of the pandemic. It became clear all our plans would have to change – I was truly heartbroken. Without the BBC stepping in at this point all the work we had done on the play, into which we had poured our hearts and souls, was going to be lost.
So in February we began rehearsals once again, with scrupulous social distancing, testing and masks, to make it as if for an audience and then capture it for screen. The actors could not touch until the final week so we would have to imagine perhaps the most important moments in the play. We learnt how to make a show for an empty theatre, how to acknowledge the cameras whilst retaining theatrical instincts, and we learnt how profoundly the play speaks to this moment. It looks unflinchingly at abuses of power, at grief and at forgiveness. It celebrates the coming of Spring, the possibility of reconciliation and above all, it asks us to have faith – that after a dreadfully “wide gap of time”, the future can begin again.
There have been many joys and terrors in making this production for screen including the knowledge that no-one will see the work live, but I hope that by sharing it on television, it will mark a new era of collaboration between theatres and broadcasters, together finding ingenious ways of reaching the widest possible audience.
Shakespeare was a great experimenter, never more so than in this play, and he loves to remind us of the risks and pleasures of suspending our disbelief. I hope his words, and our friends at the BBC, can transport you to the best seats in the house.
Erica Whyman is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Deputy Artistic Director and director of The Winter’s Tale.