Prague company brings new bilingual production of The Winter’s Tale to the Estates Theatre

The Estates Theater in Prague, photo: National Theater / ERHT

This Friday, theatre-goers in Prague have a second chance to see a brand-new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the magical Estates Theatre. The play is the only one which Shakespeare set partly in ancient Bohemia and, fittingly, the production is bilingual, in both English and Czech.

Guy Roberts,  photo: Prague Shakespeare company
I spoke to the director, Guy Roberts of the Prague Shakespeare company, about the production and some of the actors; first I asked about the unusual play itself.

“Well it is a little bit strange. It is one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote and it actually combines really funny comedy, like in his early plays, and great drama from his older work. Some people do consider it a romance but it is one of these plays which is really hard to pin down what it is. Half of the play takes place in a mythical kingdom called Sicilia and the other half in ancient Bohemia. So there are two very different worlds in the play and they come together.

“We wanted the production it to be very beautiful, about the acting and the language and we wanted it to come across as a beautiful fairy tale.”

“One of the ways in which we tried to make this production unique was that all of the scenes in Bohemia are in Czech, with Czech actors, and in Sicilia are in English, with native English-speakers. We are using Martin Hilský’s translation which is fantastic and we have some great artists involved so I am really excited that we were able to bring these two groups together.”

That sounds very cool: when did you get the idea, by the way?

The Estates Theater in Prague,  photo: National Theater / ERHT
“I had the idea for a while, from when I came to Prague for the first time. I thought it would be perfect because it is the only Shakespeare play really set in Bohemia. But I had to wait until I had the right group of actors. It required a very large cast, more than 30 people in the show, and I also wanted to wait until we had the right theatre. I am very happy that the National Theatre made it possible for us to stage this production at the Estates Theatre because the play is ultimately a beautiful fairy tale and it needed a beautiful fairy tale-like theatre like the Estates Theatre to stage it.”

The Estates Theatre is a magical one, the place where Mozart’s Don Giovanni was first performed, what is it like to be on that stage, what is the atmosphere like?

“All of the scenes in Bohemia are with Czech actors, and all of them in Sicilia are with native English-speakers.”

“We’ve performed there before but one of my favourite moments is to watch the faces of actors who step onto that stage for the first time. The first time they stand there and look out into the historic theatre, their faces are so funny: mouths open, they just can’t believe it. It is such a great experience and honour. The acoustics are perfect it is just one of the most magical theatres you can imagine.”

You managed the large cast, who are some of the actors? Obviously we’ve heard that the British ambassador to Prague, Jan Thompson, is back… who are some of the others?

Jan Thompson,  Archive of UK Government
“Yes, Jan Thompson is back and she plays the character of Paulina and she is terrific. Jessica Boone plays Hermione, who is the woman who is wronged by her tyrannical husband, the king, who is turned into a statue but comes back to life at the end, Gregory Gudgeon as Camillo, Bill Roberts as Antigonus, and we have a lot of great Czech actors as well, Karel Heřmánek Jr., Štěpán Benoni, Lucie Špičková, and many more.”

As the director, how did you approach the most famous stage direction of all which is Exit – pursued by a bear…

“The stage is very simple as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day.”

“Yes. Well that is the most famous stage direction and there is some historical evidence. although we’re not quite sure, that because Shakespeare’s theatre was used for bear- baiting at times, that this was an in-joke. Obviously we don’t do that. We instead are relying on a more expressionistic approach, there is a storm and a swell of music and a splash of red across the backdrop to signal the change. So no bear.”

Tell me a little about the costumes.

Jessica Boone,  photo: National Theatre
“We have some beautiful costumes coming from the Barrandov Studios. The stage is very simple and bare, we wanted it to be like in Shakespeare’s day and it is about the actors and the language. We did want it to be very beautiful: the play is about redemption and forgiveness but it is also a fairy tale and we wanted it to be very simple like those tales.”

As there a director is there one scene which was a difficult nut to crack or presented more complex structure or nuances tom capture?

“There is a scene in Act IV which is set in Bohemia, which is the longest that Shakespeare ever wrote in any play. It is very complicated, with many ‘entrances’ and ‘exits’ and a lot of people in the background because there is a sheep-shearing festival and pigs are roasting on fires and people are drinking beer and dancing. We spent a lot of time putting that together because it is really full of life and that was really fun. There is a great feeling of what the Czechs call ‘pohoda’: happiness or relaxed atmosphere.

Martin Hilský,  photo: Marián Vojtek
“The play also has one of the most famous and beautiful scenes in all of Shakespeare which is when the dead queen comes back to life and forgives the tyrannical king for all his transgressions. It was wonderful for us to be able to do that at the Estates.”

And for audience members who only speak one of the languages, there are surtitles so everyone can follow along…

“That’s right. The Czech is Martin Hilsky’s translation.”