London actors breathe life into Wellesley College's 'The Winter's Tale'
If it's autumn and the leaves are beginning to fall, Actors From The London Stage must be coming to town to perform a Shakespearean play at Wellesley College.
Indeed, they are. Believe it or not, there are some things you can count on in these tumultuous times. But this year, instead of one of the Bard's more famous plays, they're staging "The Winter's Tale," a less familiar work.
"Those who know their Shakespeare say it's one of their favorites," said Robert Mountford, who's playing the male lead, Leontes, along with four other roles. "Those who don't know the play should find it exciting to come see a fresh play as if it's just been unearthed."
He admits that it's not even performed that often in Britain. Wellesley College is making the company's three performances available to the public, free of charge.
After traveling with the group's 2006 production of "Hamlet," Mountford couldn't resist signing up for this year's 10-campus tour. For one thing, it's work, which isn't always easy for any actor to find. For another, he welcomes the opportunity to travel through the United States again, especially during our election season. But most of all, he couldn't resist the challenge of playing Leontes, a character who out of nowhere develops an intense jealousy, goes on a bizarre rampage as a result, and then suddenly decides he's wrong.
"It means turning on a sixpence," said Mountford, and that's no small thing for an actor to do.
Early in the play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery when she easily persuades his close friend, Polixenes, who's visiting them, to stay a little longer. Leontes jails his own wife, orders one of his Lords to poison Polixenes, and when his wife gives birth to a baby in prison, he orders that the baby be left on a desert shore to die. With a setup like this, it's easy to see why Mountford would say that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be a Hollywood scriptwriter.
But the play doesn't end there, by any means, since it's ultimately a work of hope and reconciliation. When asked what he's learned from working on the play, Mountford said, "Whatever mistakes we make, however bad we can be, we always have the opportunity for forgiveness and redemption, not necessarily religiously but on a social level as well."
The title of the play implies it's a story you can tell your family on a cold winter's night by the fireside. "It's fantastical, magical, has humans going mad, humans having fun, and then this triumphant magical moment," said Mountford.
Actors From The London Stage is not like any other company. Five actors play 21 roles between them in this show. The set and costumes are minimal. The actors will be on stage the whole time, even when not performing. And since they have no director, they've essentially directed each other during a 4 1/2-week rehearsal period in Brixton, a section of London known for its vibrant African-Caribbean community.
In lesser hands, all of this could easily be a recipe for disaster. But drawing on their extensive experiences on London and other English stages, these actors have the chops to turn it into a unique, theatrical experience that puts the emphasis on Shakespeare's words and story while enlisting the audience's imagination as a crucial creative partner.
Directing each other requires a keen sensitivity and a lot of "diplomatic code," but Mountford said that this consensual way of working gives them a sense of real ownership of the production. And it means that they aren't burdened with an overarching directorial concept that can sometimes get in the way of a show.
To distinguish between his two primary characters, Leontes and the Old Shepherd (who finds Leontes' baby daughter left on a beach), Mountford exchanges a royal sash for a rustic hat. Little tricks of stagecraft like this enable the audience to keep characters straight. But he and the other actors also use more of a "British actor's voice" when they're in Sicilia.
"When we go off to Bohemia, we have a much more rough and raucous sound, more rural," said Mountford.
The actors did have to figure out some difficult moments together, including one of Shakespeare's most unusual and famous stage directions, "Exit, pursued by a bear." He won't say how they solved that one, leaving it for people to come see. But he promised that it does not involve an actual bear enlisted from a local zoo.
Mountford first became interested in theater when he was 4 or 5 years old and saw a priest do a fundraising cabaret while wearing a huge blue tutu and a pink wig. "I laughed my heart out," said Mountford.
It wasn't long before he was traveling the half hour from Birmingham, England, down to Stratford on Avon to see Shakespeare's plays performed. He lost interest in the Bard as a teenager, but regained a love of him while studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which instilled in him the belief that he could do theater and make a career out of it. He also met his wife at RADA, and she, too, continues to act professionally while they raise a family together.
Mountford said that his career has become Shakespeare heavy, but whether he's performing in Shakespeare or a soap opera the actual work is the same.
"You're asking who am I, what do I want, who are my friends and who are my enemies?" he said.
For those who feel intimidated by Shakespeare's Elizabethan language, Mountford said, "My big tip is not to try to understand every word. If it's being presented well, you will understand the story and be able to pick out key sentences. Let it wash over you. Don't try to understand every word, because you'll miss the story."
And according to Mountford, this show offers one heck of a story, one heck of a winter's tale.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "The Winter's Tale" performed by Actors From The London Stage
WHEN: Oct. 16-18 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Barstow Stage, Alumnae Hall, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley
COST: Free of charge; no reservations needed
INFO: 781-283-2000; Directions - www.wellesleysummertheatre.com/maps.htm