Last week we went to Sheffield to see The Winter's Tale. The Crucible Theatre has a thrust stage and we had seats close to it. It always takes me a few minutes to get used to Shakespearian language, but in this environment so near to the action we could hear everything clearly. It was a great performance: such a pity that the theatre was half-empty.
Winter's Tale is a favourite play of mine. It's one of the late dramas that are not easy to classify, as if in his maturity Shakespeare is reaching beyond straightforward categories. It starts out as a classical tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his old friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. The drama vividly depicts a man eaten up by self-absorption jealousy, his rapid disintegration bringing about the collapse of a family's whole world with the deaths of his wife and his young son.
But then comedy breaks into the hopelessness. The famous stage direction 'exit, pursued by a bear' seems to introduce a note of parody, hinting that nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and lots of flirtatious dancing, and all is set for a happy ending with paradise restored and broken relationships mended. But (spoiler alert) Shakespeare gets there by using a device that has puzzled critics because it seems as if it resorts to trickery. At the climax of the play Paulina brings the statue of lost Hermione back to life. It's a tease, for we don't know whether she was ever really dead or had simply been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. Anyway, in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the drama achieves its resolution.
Does the play itself 'lose its mind', disintegrating from the high art of tragedy into what at times feels close to farce? Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don't take any of this too seriously: it's just illusion, a ceremony to mark the passage of the seasons? Perhaps it's a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into an apparently careless comedy complete with songs, ballet and pick-pocketing slapstick and a miracle (if that's what it is) to end with and undermine belief still further.
Or is Shakespeare, far from being careless, showing his mastery of dramatic form by merging the two genres in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?
Here's where I find the drama especially telling. As a theologian, I see profound resonances in The Winter's Tale of the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ. It's not that any one figure is an image of Jesus (unless it is Paulina whose action in the drama is to bring about both judgment and redemption). It is the drama itself that feels irresistibly Christological, taking us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. So the play is a great transformation scene, leading us out of winter into spring and summer, bringing colour into the sombre monochromes with which it began. This is one way in which the movement from tragedy to comedy is not just credible but ultimately necessary. (See F Buechner, The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.)
Paulina says near the end: 'it is required you do awake your faith'. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you can smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, or else find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we seem to be summoned into an act of faith that draws us into the life of things, into God. Either parody or gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the silliness of self-important human lives and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but eternal. Shakespeare is always big enough for there to be endless possibilities in the way we respond. And by keeping us guessing, he always has the last laugh.
Marvellous theatre. Why don't I go to see Shakespeare much more often?