July 18, 2011

The Winter's Tale (Charles University Workshop) @ Divadlo na Pradle

I'm in Prague, at the World Shakespeare Congress. Sadly I've had to pass up most of the opportunities for Shakespeare here - the open air film festival (apart from ones I'd already seen) clashed with evening events; an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice called Shylock's Ghosts playing in the spectacular Spanish Synagogue was fully-booked; and I couldn't justify the expense of the Czech-language productions of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor playing at the castle. I did, however, at least make it to this, a student production of The Winter's Tale starring several of the student helpers at the conference.

I was both overwhelmingly impressed and extremely disappointed in the production, which played in a little black box theatre on the left bank of the river. The impressive aspect was that the company of Czech students had learned the entire, unexpurgated English text, and by and large remembered all their lines despite it not being their native tongue. I can't imagine the skill and learning that needs to go into that kind of activity, so I'm in awe.

However, the production was by and large rather uninteresting. A formal 17th/18th century setting laid the emphasis on slow decorum, which dragged the running time on far longer than necessary, and several of the actors lacked the faculty with English to put expression into the lines - for which reason, I would have actually rather seen it in their native Czech. There was little directorial interpretation, leaving this an efficiently straight telling of the text that was too slow and flat to excite.

However, this did mean that those performances which hit the mark stood out. Jakub Boguszak was a strong and nuanced Leontes, seething quietly in corners and flicking his smile on and off impressively. Michaela Graberova played a Hispanic Paulina, introduced to the sound of flamenco guitars, who had a strong presence and manipulated the king with verve and daring. I was also impressed by the deadpan performance of Radoslav Hyl as the Clown, who was simple rather than stupid and avoided easy pratfalls in favour of vacant expressions. The best performance, however, was of Matous Turek as Autolycus. With a long fake beard and an anxious sensibility, Turek livened up the second half tremendously and was never less than entertaining. I was less persuaded by the other main characters, and found Juraj Horvath's Camillo particularly troubling in his disguise at the sheep-shearing festival; where, with one eye covered with a patch, he visibly leered at Perdita.

The non-appearance of a bear was most disappointing, but when the company did push themselves creatively, the results were intriguing. The dance at the sheep-shearing festival was pleasingly complex, drawing on middle European folk routines, and the appearance of four half-naked satyrs injected energy into the scene. More moments like this would have gone a long way. Likewise, the final unveiling of Hermione was well-realised - the curtain of the theatre was lowered and the rest of the characters entered from the audience. When the curtain was raised, Hermione stood alone on a pedestal centre-stage facing away from us, and her slow movements as Paulina awakened her carried the scene's customary magic.

It was a strong job by the cast, and an impressive exercise in exploring a foreign language. However, from the point of view of an audience member, I really wish they'd used their native tongue and concentrated more on pace and character interactions. Nonetheless, a brave attempt.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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