This time last year, Erica Whyman’s production of The Winter’s Tale would have been deep into its run at the RSC. Lockdown hit as the company were about to begin technical rehearsals and since then, the world turned upside down. Whilst theatres’ doors are still closed, the RSC are broadcasting The Winter’s Tale as part of the BBC’s Lights Up season on BBC Four this Sunday.
I spoke to Prema Mehta, the lighting designer on the show about creating this production for a new medium, why The Winter’s Tale is so relevant today and her brilliant work with representation offstage.
The Winter’s Tale tells the story of King Leontes who rips his family apart with his jealousy. Grief then opens his heart as he tries to find the child he abandoned 16 years later.
“We had a vision that was made for March 2020, and we are having to look at that version, and either make decisions about what elements we can keep and what we need to slightly modify,” said Prema.
“For example, the bear is a classic moment in The Winter’s Tale. We had a version that was choreographed by our movement director Anna Morrissey and that was beautifully staged for an audience sat in a thrust formation. Then suddenly, you’re having to work to camera and you think about what an audience member needs to see and feel watching it on a television.”
With theatres having to think on their feet, you can’t help but applaud the industry for their innovative approach to the pandemic. It’s fascinating just looking at how far theatre has come in the last year through streamed productions. “It’s so interesting thinking about the audience and their expectation and how that is much bigger,” said Prema.
“So we are very quickly having to learn how to make a production go further when we come from a background of theatre, we are having to pick up an entirely different medium very quickly. I think the audience are going on quite a journey, what they might have been happy with in August is quite different to what they might be happy with now in April.
“It’s about creating something that feels exciting and not second best to the audience being physically in the space – which is quite a challenge. But it’s a really good challenge, we all need to keep pushing ourselves. As a lighting designer I’ve certainly learnt a lot, I know what is really important to the eyes of a camera and what we needed to make decisions on.”
Working on this show means a lot to Prema after it was the play she studied at A-Level Theatre Studies. “The first thing I did was The Winter’s Tale. At that time lighting was so new to me. We used to have to borrow lights and hire equipment,” she said. Fast-forward and 16-year-old Prema would have fallen off her chair had she known that she was going to be lighting the same production, not only at the RSC, but also filmed for the BBC. “It is quite a special moment for my personal journey,” added Prema.
Airing the show on the BBC gives so many people more access to experiencing the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I think that’s the most positive aspect to come out of the pandemic,” Prema said.
“We’ve been able to bring theatre to a much larger audience. I think what has been really exciting is that we’ve shown that we can make theatre accessible.
“I do feel really strongly about people that have had to shield for the past year – because that is a really difficult position to be forced upon. If we can give them a moment to escape and bring art to them, that feels like a really positive thing.”
Recently awarded a Fellowship at Guildhall where Prema studied, 16 years later she is honoured to be recognised for her work in the industry. Not only as a remarkable lighting designer, but for creating Stage Sight – whose vision is to create an offstage workforce that is more reflective of our society today, inclusive of ethnicity, class and disability.
“Pre-pandemic, there was a bit of conversation about onscreen and onstage diversity but very little being said about the entire offstage workforce,” Prema explained. Back in 2019, when Prema was working across the country, she saw a pattern across the workforce that didn’t feel representative.
“I would have one to one chats with directors and artistic directors across the country to be sure if this was an issue, or just something that I saw. When I had an awful lot of directors saying ‘no this is really an issue’, that then felt that someone needed to address it,” she said.
“The way of doing that was not believing that one person could make the change single handedly, it was an industry wide issue that we need to recognise and resolve.
“We’ve created a model with Stage Sight, we break it down into the three areas; we talk about recruiting, reaching out and creating new pathways and then that feels as if you are addressing all sorts of areas, obstacles and barriers.” Numerous companies such as Battersea Arts Centre, The RSC, The National Theatre and so many more have signed up to Stage Sight so far.
When the pandemic hit, the membership for Stage Sight increased, suggesting how important the industry find this issue. “Perhaps the pandemic forced us all into a moment of pause where we could think about what our industry does well but equally what we need to improve upon,” said Prema. “I think we’d be fools not to take this moment of pause to come back differently – that is what we need.”
The pandemic has been time to reflect, create and innovate. The theatre industry has had time to evaluate how we need to move forward. Whilst the lockdown continues, Prema is delighted that so many more people will be able to experience The Winter’s Tale at the RSC.
“You can expect to see an extraordinary company of actors who have started creating a production, been through a pandemic, held onto hope of bringing it to life again and here we are with an excellent production which we are ready to share,” explained Prema.
“If we think about society, government and political activity that has been happening during the pandemic, so much of it relates to The Winter’s Tale and the themes correlate to what we are experiencing in real life.
“I hope we’ve created something that is relevant to what we are going through today in a really creative way, that’s also accessible for audiences to watch.”
The Winters Tale is on BBC Four on Sunday 25 April at 7pm, find out more on The RSC’s website.