Words from Ian McKellen
Leontes is a neglected great part because it appears, like The Winter's Tale itself, to be broken-backed. The first three acts belong to King Leontes as he is overtaken by jealousy and accuses his best friend of cuckolding him. Hermione is his perfect wife but all is lost on the half-mad husband. His son dies, his wife too, it seems, and he has his own baby thrown out into the wilds, his closest advisor too. All this action with Shakespeare's toughest most complicated jazzy verse, which is almost impossible to dissect in the study or the rehearsal room but which rolls off the tongue and makes a dreadful sense as it reveals the curdled emotions of a mind gone wrong: "There may be in the cup a spider steep'd etc."
John Barton, my old mentor, directed these scenes very helpfully. He wasn't scared to cut what he felt were over-dense lines, and supported my idea that Leontes was a soldierly type ruling Sicilia as a one-party state. This was at odds with the rather fey fairytale costumes and unspecific Scandinavian settings which had been agreed on by the directorial triumvirate of Barton, Barry Kyle and Trevor Nunn.
This crazy set-up was the result of goodness knows what necessity: probably Trevor's having directed the play before and yet not quite able to convince the other two to take it on single-handedly. Nunn and Kyle were in charge of rehearsing the second part of the play when Leontes vanishes — except for the glorious last scene when Hermione is restored to life and reunites lost child with repentant father and tragedy turns to comedy.
It would have been greedy to expect to top or match the acclaim which Macbeth was enjoying but I was sorry that I didn't get a chance to improve the show by transferring it with Romeo & Juliet to the Aldwych. As it was, after the season in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the production was dropped, giving me time to add a Jonson, an Ibsen and a Brecht to my RSC repertoire. — Ian McKellen, May 2003
"Three directors are two too many." — Ian McKellen, September 1998