The Winter’s Tale — Staging: the bear

The Winter’s Tale has, arguably, the most famous stage direction in history: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Now, I wasn’t around in Shakespeare’s day, but legend has it that bear-baiting bears were used, or possibly a man in one of the deceased bear-baiting animal skins. Now, in a film, you could actually have him pursued by a bear (though that BBC version opts for the man-in-a-bear-suit route…with one of the most ridiculously fake bear suits I’ve ever seen). But in a theater? With real-life audience members (who you would like not to become late audience members)?

Now, as part of a BBC Radio show, actor David Tennant discussed the problem for “Just a Minute”…pretty entertaining and a great summing up of the issue:

But the question remains, how do you stage it?

Some from the past:

  • Flowing silk, shaken by stage hands (RSC)
  • Bear rug that comes alive (1986, Terry Hands)
  • Portion of the Sicilian scenery (a fallen roof) becomes the bear (1999, Gregory Doran)
  • Flash of lightning (1981, Eyre)

And then there’s this 2009 RSC production, directed by David Farr.

The photo shows the bear, made from pages of paper. [Royal Shakespeare Company Photo by Alessandro Evangelista.]
The photo shows the bear, made from pages of paper. [Royal Shakespeare Company Photo by Alessandro Evangelista.]
Here’s a trailer for the production where you can catch snippets of the bear toward the end…

Now, in 2016, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented The Winter’s Tale and in my review, I said:

What did work, however, was the single best “Exit, pursued by a bear” I have ever seen. When Antigonus arrives in Bohemia, there seems to be a huge brown rock in the center of the stage, on the short platform often used to bring in set pieces like furniture. With a flash of lightning, we could see (because of our far left seats), that the back of this rock, now had a bear’s face. Another flash, and the claws became visible. And then it turned. A huge almost-Bunraku-style puppet driven by three puppeteers, one for the head and one for each front limb. It rose up and devoured the man. It wasn’t “exit pursued by a bear,” but “exit through the mouth of a bear,” then the creature was pulled back offstage by the movable platform. It was absolutely the thing to shift the play from tragic and sedate to comic and wild.

It’s a conundrum…How would you stage it?

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