Exit, pursued by a bear.
It is almost certainly the most famous of William Shakespeare’s stage directions, and possibly the most famous stage direction in all of English-language theatre.
The direction in Act III The Winter’s Tale applies to the character of Antigonus, whose fate at the hands of the bear is made clear in the next scene. It is entirely possible that, in the time of Shakespeare, the bear was played by an actual bear, borrowed from the bear-baiting pits of London, although no one can confirm, more than 400 years after the play was written, if that was the case.
The Shawnigan Players, for any number of reasons, are unable to use a live bear in their production of The Winter’s Tale, but they have found a more-than-suitable way around that. Angus Wakefield is listed in the program as the portrayer of the bear in the production, but director Alex Gallacher donned the fur and claws for Sunday’s matinee performance, and was terrifying enough — especially for Brian Dennison’s Antigonus.
Having the director pose as a bear is far from the most unusual circumstance for this production. Consider that the Shawnigan Players are staging The Winter’s Tale outdoors on the cusp of a heatwave — although, admittedly, weather factors into the play only briefly. There is also the fact that aspects of Shakespeare’s works, including The Winter’s Tale, have not aged well into our less-patriarchal era.
There’s also the whole pandemic, which delayed the production by an entire year, but that’s somewhat appropriate, considering that Shakespeare’s entire career played out in the shadows of the plague, with London playhouses shut down 60 per cent of the time between 1603 and 1613.
Most challenging for the players, however, is the fact that The Winter’s Tale is neither entirely a tragedy nor a comedy. The first three acts touch on perceived infidelity and murder as King Leontes (Matt Williams) loses his mind and his entire family. The latter two acts, however, are more lighthearted, particularly as Autolycus (Laura Faulkner) wreaks havoc on the lives of the Old Shepherd (Jim Cleough) and his son (Breann Gallacher).
Fortunately, Gallacher and his cast — which also includes standouts Cecilia Dennison as Perdita, Raine Edgar as Florizel, Robert Foell as Camillo, Mary Gallagher as Hermione, Simon Garnett as Mamillius Sylvia Swift as Paulina, and Rien Vesseur as Polixenes — are up to the challenge, and lead their audience through the ups and downs with appropriate seriousness in the earlier acts, and silliness later on.
This Winter’s Tale is not quite convincing enough to persuade a viewer that it isn’t in fact more than 30 C outside (don’t forget to prepare for the hot weather when attending), but the Shawnigan Players have done an admirable job defying a range of difficult circumstances.
The Winter’s Tale still has four performances remaining: on Thursday, Aug. 12, Friday, Aug. 13 and Saturday, Aug. 14 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 15 at 2 p.m. All showings take place on the grounds of Evergreen Independent School in Cobble Hill. Advance tickets are $15 for a single or $30 for a family, and are available at Ten Old Books, Mason’s Store and Eventbrite.ca