When I was at school I remember an enlightened English teacher telling me that some of Shakespeare's plays would only come into focus for me as I got older. He suggested that, as a teenager, I was ready for the fun of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the obsession of Romeo and Juliet, the games of A Merchant of Venice and the blood and guts tribalism of Henry V. And the rest? Be patient, he told me, they'll carry more meaning later. When I looked disappointed he confided that he'd not yet understood King Lear, but was beginning to sense a shape!
This afternoon I went to the Old Vic to catch Sam Mendes' production of The Winter's Tale, which has long been a cherished favourite; watching Simon Russell Beale's astonishing performance as Leontes, I heard familiar words with fresh ears, elevating a wonderful story to the most immaculate work of poetic art. Russell Beale has a singular ability to fill a line simultaneously with regret and desire. Thousands of thoughts and possibilities seem available to him at each moment.
He's ably backed up by Rebecca Hall, as a graceful Hermione and Ethan Hawke who brings a real cameo burst of stardust as the travelling minstrel Autolycus. If the rest of the production is uneven it's forgivable against these bolts of lightening.
Shakespeare wrote the play towards the end of his life and his skillful shifts of time and regeneration have a wisdom and certainty that ensures we submit to the cosmic existential truth - that although time is our mortal enemy, if we defy or waste it, we simply cease to be. Parallel to this is an acknowledgement of the rough effect we have on each other. The relentless pounding of demands, needs and causes that we give and take, shaping each other as determinedly as time itself. When Hermione pleads to her raging husband -
My Life stands in the level of your dreams
...his retort - Your actions are my dreams! - is as honest as it is threatening. Its meaning, particularly when spoken by an actor of Russell Beale's calibre, is both domestic and metaphysical and in the moment he is victim as well as predator.
Equally it is not just the reawakening of Leontes' faith that resurrects Hermione after sixteen years, but rather Paulina's double edged promise to her Queen - I will fill your grave - breaks the spell.
It is only the fluid play of memory and imagination that marks us out from other animals. This two headed beast helps us understand simultaneously our past and future. The Winter's Tale more than any other play that I know asks us not to despair, but honour and treasure these interconnected gifts, even as our age pulls them out of balance.