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Steve Pratt talks to actors Jo Stone-Fewings and Tara Fitzgerald about the latest production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is proving to be a towering challenge
HIS latest Royal Shakespeare Company role takes actor Jo Stone-Fewings up in the world. He spends much of The Winter’s Tale at the top of a gigantic tower that rises the full height of the stage from floor to proscenium arch.
In Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and forgiveness, he plays Leontes, whose jealousy of his wife plunges a family into crisis – and send him in exile atop the tower while the rest of the play happens below him.
It looks scary being on top of a tower that ascends to come a halt level with the upper circle, but Stone- Fewings is happy enough. “It would be scary if you were scared of heights, but I don’t mind heights at all” he says. “When we first did it, I was really excited.
And I still get excited. It’s weird because you’re in a separate theatre cut off from the rest of the action.
“I can touch the pros arch, which is the old pros arch from the old theatre. I must admit I’ve been up there with a pen to write my name there – not during the show, but during the technical rehearsal, just for posterity.”
He may be scribbling something along the lines of Stone-Fewings was here while he’s on the tower when the RSC makes its first visit to the Grand Opera House, York, next month with The Winter’s Tale.
He and Tara Fitzgerald, best-known for films such as Brassed Off and TV’s Waking The Dead, star in the production directed by Lucy Bailey, whose work at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds included The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dial M For Murder.
Neither knew much of the play before. “I hadn’t seen it and came with no preconceptions at all,”
says Stone-Fewings. “I hadn’t worked with Lucy before and it’s been a revelation for me. I love the way she works. And yeah, it was great to come to it with completely fresh eyes.”
Fitzgerald, who plays the wronged Hermione in her RSC debut, feels the same. “Hermione’s speech is one of those things you’re forced to do at drama school. But I’ve never seen the play. That was good because we both came to it fresh.”
The Winter’s Tale has a reputation as a problem play because of the extreme changes of tone as the second act switches locations and has a comedic feel – in complete contrast to the tragedy of the opening. “It’s an amazing play, such an incredible play. It’s become my favourite Shakespeare of the ones I’ve read. It’s extraordinary,” says Fitzgerald.
Stone-Fewings, an RSC associate artist who’s been with the company for 20 years, has worked on other later plays, including Cymbeline and Henry VIII, and finds a lot of echoes in The Winter’s Tale, not least the “crazy ending” in which a statue comes to life.
IT’S as if, according to a story Bailey repeats, Shakespeare wrote the first half, went down the pub and then came back and wrote the second half. “The end with the idea of a statue coming to life is crazy, but it’s kind of human emotion at the extreme. That’s what I love about it,” says Stone- Fewings.
Usually, Leontes disappears from the action for a long period, returning towards the end of the play.
In this production he’s present all the time isolated on the top of the tower. Health and safety dictates that because he’s that high in the air, he has to be fixed to a safety line. This is hidden by the costumes.
“I don’t want to dissipate or break the theatrical magic, but there’s a lot of things I have to plug in and the stage management has to know I’m fine before the tower goes up,” he says.
There’s also “the Jo cam” – a camera fixed to the top of the tower so the technical crew can see what he’s up to.
“Leontes is usually off stage for such a long time and suddenly you reintroduce this character into this world again. There’s this jarring of gears which Lucy avoids by having him on the tower.
“You retain a relationship with the audience even though it’s at a distance. Then he starts again and it’s like he’s been everpresent.”
Bailey’s direction gives the actors freedom, causing things to change from show to show. “It was completely different today,” he says, following the matinee performance. Fitzgerald takes up the theme. “Yes, it’s your space, it really is free time and you just have to be brave enough. You can be dangerous and that’s what the audience feel – the danger.”
BAILEY is also “not overly-precious with the text, shall we say,” he adds. “She was very keen for the emotional dial to be turned up on this production, so we cut the text around. I know purists don’t like that sort of stuff, but we’re working in the 21st Century in a very visual age.
You tell very strong stories with our set and sometimes those things don’t have to be reinterated.
“She chops things, scenes and lines, right until the very last minute. As an actor it throws you off your centre, which is what she wants to do, and that’s not a bad thing. You’ve got to be brave.
“It’s very collaborative. She’s completely looking for it and there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s ours.”
Fitzgerald, who came to the RSC from filming the third series of HBO’s Game of Thrones, would like to do more theatre. “Hopefully yeah. It’s in the lap of Apollo really. Theatre and film cross-fertilise for me. This is where it’s at, theatre, isn’t it? Most actors, a lot of actors, say that, don’t they?”
Stone-Fewings doesn’t have a wish list of Shakespearean roles. “Every year throws up new challenges.
A couple of years ago was quite full – I was doing Dream in the main house and this unknown play in the Swan, which was just a vast part, quite a challenge,” he says.
“It’s funny, every time you do a part it prepares you for something else that you don’t know is coming.
I feel blessed and lucky that I continue to work in this company, because I love it.”
- The Winter’s Tale: York Grand Opera House, March 19 to 23. Box office 0844-8713024 and online atgtickets.com/york