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May 05, 2012

The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

Follow-up to The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ Sheffield Lyceum from The Bardathon

A second visit last night to Propeller's The Winter's Tale, now in Coventry, both affirmed and complicated the thoughts in my original review of the Sheffield performance. Once more, the play combined some truly superlative performances with a joyous depiction of Bohemia. Thanks to a far more culturally literate companion, I now know that the main dance number was actually a move-for-move recreation of one of Beyonce's recent hits, and went down particularly well with the Coventry audience.

The performance that particularly stood out for me this time was Ben Allen's Perdita. Less obviously foregrounded than his Mamillius, Perdita still managed to root the entire second half in a sincere and moving performance. Allen's Perdita fidgeted constantly, playing with the folds of her dress and wringing her hands. The mix of nerves and openness, bashfulness and pleasure in hosting, made this the most complex Perdita I've yet seen, and the wrenching apart of the couple by Polixenes left her broken yet resolute.

Unfortunately the first half of the play felt a little off. Lines were rushed through, and the use of direct address felt more forced than usual. Robert Hands's sobbing as Leontes heard of Hermione's death, which moved me in Sheffield, now drowned out Paulina's dialogue and sounded artificial, an emotional reaction too removed from his earlier detachment to ring true (albeit his reactions and wonder in the play's final act were still heartrending). Perhaps familiarity had muted some of the production's effects for me, but Sicilia only appeared to come to life upon the return from Bohemia.

It's still one of the best Winter's Tales I've had the fortune to see, and a great showcase for Propeller's talents. Looking forward to Henry V tonight, which will get a full review.


February 02, 2012

The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ Sheffield Lyceum

Writing about web page http://propeller.org.uk/current-productions/henry-v-and-the-winters-tale

Edward Hall's company Propeller has always been playful. Whether entertaining audiences in foyers, offering grand guignol torture scenes or turning Portia into a drag queen, the company has delighted in its own performativity. In doing so, their shows tread a fine line between the parodic and the emotive. While elements of the farcicial and ridiculous occasionally threatened to tip the play over into music-hall, at the heart of Propeller's philosophy is a devotion to text and to the human heart of Shakespeare's plays. As such, while the music, nudity and belly-laughs may have got the biggest reactions from the Sheffield audience, this was in many ways the quietest and chillest Winter's Tale I've ever seen.

The key innovation here was the foregrounding of Mamillius. From the start, Leontes' palace was established as his son's playground. Ben Allen, in pyjamas and shuffling and shrugging with all the self-consciousness of the overgrown child, played with a set of modelling dolls scattered around the stage as sand fell from the ceiling and filled a small wheelbarrow. Three of the dolls - dressed as Hermione, Polixenes and Leontes - gave the child the opportunity to indicate his awareness of the growing tensions, as he pushed them together in positions of love and aggression. The ominous nature of this opening was heightened by the appearance of men in the shadows, holding brandy glasses which they rubbed to create an eerie tone that quickly became unbearable, an effect repeated at key moments throughout the play.

The scene sprang into life, and Mamillius ran about the stage, gleefully playing with the adults who laughed at his antics. Drawing, as ever, on the dynamics of male social rituals that an all-male cast brings to the fore, this was a raucous company, bandying innuendoes and sharing cigars as they celebrated their own egos. Richard Dempsey's heavily pregnant Hermione moved gracefully among the men, offering her own share of quick quips and giving the men as good as they got.

Winter

The rot set in quickly, and Mamillius remained the focus throughout. Leontes (Robert Hands) alternately held his son closely and barked at him to leave while glaring at Hermione and Polixenes, reduced to slow motion and holding hands playfully. Hands trod a fine balance between outbursts of rage and the internalisation of his jealousy, keeping the scene as rooted in psychological credibility as possible. Yet Propeller's performance style depends a great deal on direct address, thus allowing Hands to explain rather than perform his rage, while Mamillius watched on.

The aim throughout the first act was to contrast Leontes' blustering patriarchal rage (implicitly supported by the lackeys who had laughed at every joke in the earlier scenes) with the stillness and sensibility of the play's women and children. Shockingly, when interrupting the women's private scene, Leontes picked up the heavily pregnant Hermione under her stomach, and dropped her heavily back on her feet, leaving her in pain as she went into early labour. Despite this, Dempsey offered a wonderful display of pained restraint, gathering her composure as she wished him to be sorry. Mamillius' own decline began at this point as he watched his mother led away, and subsequently he appeared on a balcony overlooking the stage. A further moment of tension was added as Vince Leigh's fascinating Paulina - earrings and loose trousers differentiating her status, but giving her an odd sense of authority - brought in a tiny bundle of clothes to present to Leontes and laid it at his feet, giving the impression that he could at any moment stamp on the child's head.

The speeded-up first half cut Cleomenes and Dion's brief scene and split the opening dialogue between the entire cast, who commented on Mamillius as he played, again keeping the focus on the core family- even Nicholas Asbury's rather tempestuous Polixenes and Chris Myles's somewhat scheming Camillo were passed over quickly. The emotional payoff came in the trial scene, where Hermione - shaven-headed and still wearing her bloody birthing robe - was brought to stand before a microphone as paparazzi in the stalls snapped pictures and yelled comments. The contrast between her continuing steadfastness and Leontes' manic activity was clear, and cleverly switched as Leontes became still as he read the prophecy while Hermione and the rest of the company relaxed. The actual moment of his rejection was passed over too quickly for it to be really effective, his words immediately covered by a crash of thunder and the news of Mamillius' death, not giving opportunity for the severity of his statement to be registered. However, as children and women vanished from the scene, the effect was certainly felt.

The transition into the interval again focused around Mamillius, who re-entered as Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Antigonus placed the baby on an empy stage. As thunder rolled and the noise of a bear was heard, Mamillius produced a doll of Antigonus and a toy bear, and he proceeded to act out the graphic savagery of the attack with the gusto of a child. The playfulness of this moment jarred effectively against the horror of the imagined scene, and played well into the leisurely introduction of John Dougall's fantastic Yorkshire farmer and Karl Davies's hyperactive Young Shepherd. Following the interval, the transition was made complete as Mamillius reappeared and delivered the Chorus in the person of Time, introducing the characters of the second half by bringing them on stage and adding some grey make-up to Camillo and Polixenes while himself taking over Perdita's role.

Bohemia rather obviously drew on a 60s aesthetic, combining a Woodstock hippy enclave with a rock n'roll band set up announcing itself as "The Bleatles". What made these scenes stand out was their sheer energy and hysterical inventiveness, forming a fantastic contrast with the rather steady scenes of the first half. The cast became a Chorus of sheep, wearing woolly leg warmers and hats, who acted as the onstage band when not in character. Tony Bell, so fantastic as Dr. Pinch in last year's Comedy of Errors, essentially reprised his role in the form of Autolycus, appearing from stage mist as if Mick Jagger and leading the sheep in a range of glammy rock songs, interspersed with crude comments to ladies in the audience. Bell, as ever, owned the stage whenever he was on, particularly in a wonderful routine with Davies which began with pinching his pockets and ended with him removing the latter's shorts as he strode confidently offstage.

The sheep-shearing feast, so often interminable, was here joyous. Heavily cut, but featuring some wonderful dance routines led by Dempsey's Dorcas and Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa, the scene captured the carnival atmosphere with a series of comic highlights, such as the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo disguised as a scoutmaster and a (moustachioed) girl guide and a full-on scrap between Mopsa and Dorcas. Colourful and vibrant, the pleasure of this scene made the eventual revelation of Polixenes, and the trauma of the country folk (Dougall simply sat down, a sublime moment that fully captured the Old Shepherd's shock with the simplest of gestures) all the more powerful. The working out of the plot was little more than a working out, although Bell's impersonation of a courtier and the tremulous fear of the two Shepherds was genuinely funny, but the whole served to set up a fine denouement.

Leontes reappeared in a wheelchair, pushed gently by Paulina. He took Florizel and Perdita to his arms, giving the non-verbal promise of support even as he criticised their dishonesty, and threw away his walking stick as he followed them off-stage to meet his old friend. The power of the scene was in the joy shown by a character who had thus far shown none, leading us into an expectation of warmth. The reunion scene was played out in a series of tableaux while members of the cast narrated the meeting; and then all gathered for the conclusion. Through a clever piece of stage misdirection, Hermione was 'revealed' downstage, facing away from the audience and still enough to create the illusion of non-movement. As she came to life, the company played out the awe and reverence of the moment to the soft notes of a piano, all taking hands and underplaying emotion, building beautifully to Leontes' expected happiness. Yet as he reunited Polixenes and Hermione, he found himself excluded. Holding a candle as the rest of the stage lights dimmed, he moved towards each of his family members, who retreated away into the shadows. As he grew more isolated in the light of his candle, Mamillius suddenly reappeared (Allen having made a quick costume change). Leontes opened his mouth in hope and stepped towards his lost son. Mamillius shook his head quietly and, in a gesture that chillingly ended the production on a reminder of the consequences of jealousy, blew out the candle.


June 17, 2009

The Winter's Tale (The Bridge Project) @ The Old Vic

Writing about web page http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whatson.php?id=47

The Bridge Project is a major new collaboration between London's Old Vic and New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bringing together the best of English and American talent, the Project will be offering three seasons of Shakespeare and Chekov, with plays paired thematically. For this opening season, directed by Sam Mendes, The Winter's Tale was paired with The Cherry Orchard, two plays exploring love and loss and linked at the start of each by a projected caption from Richard II: “O call back yesterday, bid time return”.

Even when seen alone, The Winter's Tale betrayed the influence of a company devoted as equally to Chekov as to Shakespeare, for better and for worse. This was an excellently performed production, the cast bringing out often-hidden subtleties in the text and finding layers of complexity in the characters. More negatively, though, this close focus resulted in the production often being static, even sedentary; even the sheep-shearing festival saw the bulk of the revellers sit for most of the scene, while a circle of chairs was laid out in the final scene for the court to sit and admire Hermione's statue. The staging was therefore often visually quite dull, a problem for those of us in the gods less able to appreciate the more subtle work being done.

However, the quiet simplicity of the staging was often to the production's benefit. The opening scene (Camillo and Archidamus' opening conversation was cut) took place in Mamillius' bedroom; Leontes sat on the child's bed, Hermione on the floor and Polixenes perched on a chair nearby. This intimate, domestic opening emphasised the bonds between the three as private rather than public, serving to both give Leontes some cause for his initial suspicion and accentuate the tragedy of what his jealousy had destroyed. Hermione and Polixenes lounged together on a cushion on the floor after the latter had been persuaded to stay, toying with each other's hands and gazing into each other's eyes. Josh Hamilton's Polixenes was some years younger than Simon Russell Beale's Leontes, and Leontes was thus - at least, at first - touchingly sympathetic in his insecurity, standing awkwardly apart from the younger pair and reminiscing about his early days with Hermione in a bid for attention.

I sincerely disliked Rebecca Hall's Hermione, both in character and in performance. This Hermione was oblivious to her husband's lack of confidence, and the way she turned pointedly back to Polixenes, gazing into his eyes as she spoke of the second time she had spoken well, seemed an almost deliberate attempt to tease her husband. She came across as slightly spoiled, happy to be the centre of attention and fawned over by her husband's friend. Coupled with her apparent disregard for Leontes' own feelings, the performance left us in a troubling position; she was difficult to like, but at the same time her suffering at Leontes' hands was unconscionable. Her remark of "I never hoped to see you sorry; now I trust I shall" came out as an attempt to provoke guilt, and even when sat in court her anger manifested itself partly as petulance. While it was interesting to see a less-than-saintly Hermione, an audience still needs something to engage with. Here, it was Leontes who had most of our sympathy, his suffering and jealousy an entirely human reaction to his personal feelings of abandonment and loneliness.

Beale's performance was a masterclass in acting, always believable and sympathetic even when descending into the furthest reaches of his jealousy. Whether plucking Morven Christie's Mamillius away from Polixenes' grasp or twitching nervously at one end of the trial table, this was a man always at conflict with himself. One of the strongest moments came as Sinead Cusack's Paulina brought in the baby Perdita for him to hold. Given the baby, Leontes was simultaneously drawn to it and repulsed by it, holding it tenderly while weeping at his own hatred for it. In the act of holding it, his lines were painfully immediate: "But be it; let it live" offered hope for a moment as father embraced daughter, but the following "It shall not neither" saw him make his final decision (2.3.156-7).

The mania of Leontes reached its apotheosis in the court scene, conducted interestingly at a single table, with Leontes and Hermione at either end and an extremely uncomfortable judge in the middle, stammering and nervous at the task he was being asked to perform. I found the oracle extremely problematic: here, a wooden box was opened and a quill removed, which magically stood itself upright and began scrawling its judgment on a piece of parchment. Aside from the inescapable Harry Potter associations, this open display of magic early in the play served to make Leontes' defiance particularly incomprehensible - why would you not believe the magic pen?! - and also undermined somewhat Paulina's later request to "awake your faith" (5.3.95). In a world where magic had already been proven to exist on so tangible a level, belief in these arts was no longer an issue.

So to Bohemia, where a coloured cyclorama presented a depth that opened out the second half of the play from the closed rooms of Leontes' court. Dakin Matthews' Antigonus was victim of a genuinely scary bear, lifesize and realistic, that padded in on all fours in dim silhouette, hiding in the shadows. Squatting behind the spotlit Antigonus, the bear drew some laughs as it appeared to be patiently waiting for him to finish his speech, but as it rose up and roared behind him, the stage was immediately blacked out, leaving a searing image in the mind's eye. Bohemia itself was reimagined as late 19th century America, in literal contrast to the Victorian English court of Sicilia. This allowed the Anglo-American cast to be neatly divided between the two physical locations, making a simple and clear distinction between the two cultures which was particularly effective in the case of Morven Christie's Perdita, who having grown up in Bohemia naturally adopted an American accent.

Unfortunately, the Bohemia scenes failed to work as effectively as those in Sicilia. The relatively inert staging that had brought out the nuances in earlier scenes here failed to conjure an appropriately festive atmosphere for what appeared to be a Thanksgiving celebration, making the long sheep-shearing scene feel that much longer. Bohemia was enlivened, however, by Ethan Hawke's Autolycus, a travelling troubadour with acoustic guitar who first appeared in silhouette, striding over a hill in an instantly iconic pose. While Hawke failed to do anything truly innovative with the part, he infused the second act with energy and wry humour, and occasional belly laughs. His initial meeting with Tobias Segel's Young Shepherd involved Autolycus bringing out a huge prop cross onto which he hung himself in a entertainingly overblown scheme for sympathy. Ballads and trinkets hung from the lining of his long cloak, and his impersonation of a foppish courtier was particularly hilarious, lounging in a chair and describing the tortures lined up for the Shepherds with relish.

Christie's Perdita and Michael Braun's Florizel were both solid if unexceptional, in what are often relatively thankless parts. Christie was strongest on her return to Sicilia, where she gazed with wide-eyed wonderment at her new found family. In a strong moment occasioned by the doubling of Perdita and Mamillius, Leontes reached out as if in a daze and touched her nose, recalling his earlier wiping of Mamillius' smutched nose, and Paulina too took a keen interest in the young girl. The conclusion, though, while visually focussing itself around the statue of Hermione, placed at extreme downstage with the courtiers sat in a semi-circle behind it, prioritised Leontes again. The revived Hermione was very different to the Hermione of Act 1- stately, dignified and almost silent, a shadow of her former self. Instantly more likeable than the earlier version, it however served to make her something of a blank in these final moments: for all we saw of her, this could well have been an animated statue. It was in the impact on Leontes that the awakening became truly magical, he weeping to be reunited and pulling his newly-extended family together, gazing on the united pairs while himself standing slightly apart.

A final bid for complication saw the rest of the cast move upstage, leaving Leontes and Hermione alone. Leontes offered his hand, and the lights went down as Hermione looked at it, leaving their future in question. It was a complication which felt slightly forced after a relatively conventional awakening scene, and not particularly necessary: from what we had seen of this Hermione and Leontes, there's was never going to be an easy journey back to happiness. This production, then, was a qualified success. Mendes' direction was superb, and this closely-acted production was a welcome respite from high concepts and broad brushstrokes. However, its main strength was in Beale's phenomenal central performance, which stood out in an otherwise competent, solid but ultimately conventional production.


May 04, 2009

The Winter's Tale (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whatson/7291.aspx

The new RSC ensemble is now officially up and running in Stratford, with The Winter's Tale and As You Like It both playing in rep at the Courtyard. At the moment I'm curious to see whether the new ensemble format will prove as rich as the old; where the Histories had one company playing in all eight of its plays, the new company appears to be currently split in half, with one group performing Winter's Tale and Caesar, while the As You Like It company will be appearing in Comedy of Errors and, presumably, the Russian shows. In this sense, it'll be longer until audiences start seeing the more intricate pay-offs that came from the deeply integrated cross-casting of the Histories, but the chance to watch these actors develop over the next three years should still be rewarding.

David Farr's new production is not only the first run of the new ensemble, but also his first production as an RSC Associate Director. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that this Tale was a relatively unexperimental reading, opting instead for fine performances, beautiful design and clear storytelling. The result was a strong and confident beginning for the new project, that utilised the Courtyard effectively and entertained consistently.

Books and writings dominated from the start, with two enormous bookcases stretching up into the eaves over Leontes' court. Drawing attention to the repeated reference to tales and stories within the play itself, the books represented the order and learning of Leontes' world. Leaving the stage after the announcement of Hermione's death, though, pages blew through the stage's back doors, hitting his departing body while the two shelves teetered ominously and then crashed together, their shelves and contents spilling over the stage. From this point on, the torn pages of books became the decoration of chaos, whether forming the costumes for the frantic fertility ritual at the sheep-shearing or making up the leaves of Bohemia's trees. Their most powerful reappearance, though, was as the ten-foot bear; as mist poured in from the back entrance and a deep growling was heard, two pinpricks of light appeared. The bear itself, managed by two puppeteers, was a mass of paper leaves formed into a rough bear shape, yet expertly manipulated as an other-worldly monster that pawed at Baby Perdita. As Antigonus ran towards it, waving his hands to distract its attention, it swept down and enveloped him in its mass, dragging him screaming off-stage.

A book appeared again in the hands of Time, here a half-naked old man descending in a bulbous lamp shade that had previously hung over Leontes' court (and had collapsed along with the bookshelves, forming the crib in which Antigonus laid Perdita). Thumbing his volume, the pages of text woven into the production's design became a constant reminder of the presence of time (and Time) in the unfolding events.

The play opened on a long banqueting table set for Christmas dinner, from which Mamillius stole a cracker before hiding under the table. As Camillo and Archidamus discussed the young prince, the sound of the cracker snapping interrupted them, before Mamillius emerged and, with all the dignity he could muster, placed a paper crown on his head, at which gesture the two lords bowed. The early focus on Mamillius allowed his tragedy to resound during his long off-stage illness. Both Leontes and Hermione claimed him, holding him close and showering parental affection on him, and the connection with Leontes was strengthened by Mamillius remaining on stage to overhear much of Leontes' jealous monologue, staring quizzically at the words he didn't understand.

Greg Hicks' Leontes was a disturbed individual. Speaking in clipped, carefully articulated tones throughout, his vocal delivery slowly increased in speed as his jealousy descended into paranoid nerves. He developed tics and twitches, and was clearly at war within himself. Before Hermione was escorted off to prison, she sat next to him and kissed him on the cheek, at which he squirmed away, his face distorting as love and hate battled for priority. A similar battle was held after the reading of the oracle; presiding from a downstage chair facing the back wall, Leontes met the cheers of his lords with silence and turned his face away, towards the audience. Shaking slightly, he held the moment as he fought his emotions before surrendering and declaring the oracle a liar, to everyone's horror. The action immediately sped up, with Mamillius' death and Hermione's swoon following in seemingly seconds. The effect was that Leontes' moment of decision to defy Apollo was held up as the direct cause of the tragedies that followed, that he had knowingly and deliberately thrown away his last chance for redemption.

At the centre of his attention was Kelly Hunter's Hermione. Hunter's middle-aged Hermione was a mother and wife first and foremost, without the glamour or overt flirtatiousness that might have given Leontes some cause for suspicion. Dignified and heavily pregnant, she moved with the slow confidence of an experienced hostess, and her interaction with Polixenes (even in the slow-motion sequence that accompanied Leontes' initial expression of jealousy) was clearly simple friendliness. Her reaction to the accusations of adultery, therefore, was not simply one of surprise but of complete unfamiliarity with the concept; her family was her world. Her confidence saw her go to prison in relatively good spirits, but by her next appearance her decorum had worn thin. Clad only in the bloody smock in which she had given birth, she trudged onto the stage barefoot, squinting into bright light to make out Leontes with an exhalation of mingled hope and disbelief. Hermione had no idea how to even begin to defend herself against the charge, as shown in a final burst of frustration where she lashed out at the guards who held her arms and screamed her innocence at her passive husband.

The dark and foreboding world of Sicilia was a Catholic one, with Cleomenes and Dion both clergy, and the ritual of reading out the oracle was performed with full pomp, the two emerging from dazzling back lights. Their status led to an additional moment of comedy in the last scene, as Cleomenes tried to flee the stage as Pauline told anyone to depart who thought her work "unlawful business", before he was stopped by Leontes. The austere Catholic world of the court, however, contrasted neatly with the uninhibited rural paganism of Bohemia, in which the florally-clad Perdita sat in the top branches of a tree and locals danced wildly. The centre-piece of the sheep-shearing was the dance of the twelve, here clad in costumes made out of book leaves and enormous erect phalluses, which they waved like swords. At the conclusion of their fertility dance, Perdita and Florizel were revealed in the centre kissing passionately, prompting Polixenes' "Is it not too far gone? Tis time to part them".

The second half of the play was dominated by Brian Doherty's Autolycus, who in his first appearance emerged from a trap, next to a 'wanted' sign with his face on it, and struck up an instant friendship with the company musicians, who moved down from their usual gallery to take part in the festivities. The musicians proceeded to accompany him throughout in his snatches of Irish folk songs and adlibbing. Coming across like no-one so much as Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, this Autolycus was a lovable rogue and largely harmless, delighting in his thefts and ridiculous disguises, particularly his superbly pompous impersonation of a lord. As the action moved back to Sicilia, however, he was increasingly sidelined; he listened to the servants discuss the reunion of Leontes and Perdita rather than taking part, then stole the Clown's purse while suing for pardon. As the company left the stage via the back doors at the play's end, accompanied by the shepherds, Autolycus strode along in the rear, only to have the doors slammed in his face. As the sounds of celebration continued behind closed doors, Autolycus shivered and pulled his coat around himself, sitting on a box as snowflakes began to fall from the ceiling. A shrug to the audience offset the severity of his final abandonment somewhat, but it was a touchingly chilly ending for the play and, perhaps, a fitting end for the character.

Samantha Young made for a relatively feisty Perdita, angrily arguing with Tunji Kasim's Florizel as their plans fell apart. Florizel was played very much in the romantic hero mould, dashing even as he endured hardships, and there was some comedy in the subverting of this type as Perdita became increasingly frustrated and, ultimately, their fate was left in the hands of their elders. The remainder of the supporting cast were also excellent. John Mackay's Camillo was a modest Scot, kindly and slightly nervous - his terrified reaction to the fertility dance which he became trapped in the middle of was priceless. Darrell D'Silva's Polixenes was a genial toff, partial to his brandy snifters, and the disguises the two donned for the sheep-shearing (in keeping with the generally Victorian costume design) referenced British empire builders. Gruffudd Glyn also stood out as the Welsh Young Shepherd, good-natured and pleasantly dim, while Noma Dumezweni was an articulate and strong Paulina, sympathetic to Leontes' discomfort in the later Sicilian scenes while still maintaining control over his future, much to Cleomenes and Dion's frustration.

I've raced somewhat through the rest of the cast, but pleasingly (considering the Stratford audience will be watching them for three years!) the whole ensemble were strong, and already working well together to the greater effect of the production rather than running off with their own sections; even the usual star roles didn't dominate, but fitted neatly into the wider picture. The statue scene epitomised this beautifully; the wide focus of the staging allowed an effective intimacy as we waited for Hermione's head to turn, but also allowed us to experience the moment through the faces of the various onlookers: priest, husband, faithful servant, daughter. It was a communal magic, and one that the ensemble will hopefully continue to create.


August 19, 2008

The Winter's Tale @ The Bodleian Library, Oxford

It's a busy week of theatre for me. I'm seeing the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream tonight (first glimpse for me of the ensemble who are also performing Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost), and I'm spending the bank holiday in London where I'll catch the Globe's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens. For something a bit different, I'll also be seeing Waves at the National Theatre, based on a Virginia Woolf book and directed by Katie Mitchell, who I've heard many interesting things about.

Yesterday I saw the Globe again, this time the touring company doing The Winter's Tale. Given that my last experience of the Globe touring company was somewhat dampened, I was relieved to find Oxford bathed in glorious sunshine when I arrived. Ironically, the sun held for the entire first half of the play (ie the winter bit), before becoming clouded over and raining slightly during the second half, the summer sheep-shearing. The stubbornly inappropriate weather lent the production a fascinating and entirely undeliberate atmosphere, particularly in the second half where it emphasised the gloomier aspects and cast a slight pall over the scenes of pastoral celebration.

While perhaps not quite as evocative as the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, the quad of the Bodleian Library made for an impressive venue, the statue of Bodley himself glaring over the audience. However, the bell-ringing that started a block away just before the performance and continued without intermission for the entire performance was less welcome, jarring with the quieter and more severe moments. The production itself took place on a stage with a long, thin thrust. Most of the action took place on this catwalk, which interestingly inverted the perspective - while technically thrust, it often played more like traverse, with the end-on section of the audience quite far from the performers. At the back of the stage, a simple entrance with a circle pattern formed a backdrop.

The quad of the Bodleian Library
The quad of the Bodleian Library.

In a play so much concerned with families, it was fascinating to see so many related actors on stage; Sasha Hails played Hermione, Mamillius was credited to both Siofra and Grainne Hails (the two youngsters appeared at different moments in this and other child-roles though their physical similarity meant that I didn't realise this until they both appeared on stage together for the first time in the curtain call), while the tiny and adorable Cara Hails, credited as 'Young Shepherdess', appeared at start and end of acts with a placard announcing the time and place. The Globe has only been experimenting with touring in the spirit of Elizabethan players since last year, and this visual image of a family living and working on the road was a constant reminder of the practicalities of touring, reinforcing the scaled-down ethos.

The production was downsized in other ways, most notably the text. Clocking in at very slightly over two hours, including an interval, this was a vastly reduced Tale that edited the text considerably while cleverly retaining all the key activity. This was achieved primarily through the redistribution of minor parts and sequences - so, for example, the opening of 5.2 became a conversation between Autolycus and a single gentleman rather than a four-way discussion of events. Even the larger parts were doubled with smaller in order to accommodate a small cast: Leontes/Old Shepherd, Paulina/Young Shepherd, Hermione/Mopsa, Perdita/Emilia, Autolycus/Antigonus. A minimum lighting level was guaranteed by a couple of strings of bulbs over the stage, and all sound was created onstage with a lute and chime. The result of this pared-down approach was, of course, to focus attention on the actors.

John Dougall gave a measured performance as Leontes, casually dressed in shirt and waistcoat as were most of his court. His observations of Hermione and Polixenes began almost rationally, his curiosity gradually building into jealousy and anger; yet physically he remained fixed in place, thus allowing his rage to build internally rather than burning it off in outward violence. His queen and friend were seen, just offstage, talking quietly and often touching hands, heightening his rage. His anger and bitterness reached its crescendo in his introduction to his daughter, shouting openly at Paulina. By contrast to the effective build-up of his jealousy, though, its sudden disappearance felt awkward in the only moment in the fast play that felt rushed, the news of Mamillius and then Hermione's death. The news, and Leontes' repentance, was performed quickly, not allowing the impact of the offstage tragedies an opportunity to sink in before we found ourselves on the shores of Bohemia.

One of the most interesting casting decisions was Michael Benz playing Paulina as well as the Young Shepherd. Strong as the latter, he was particularly good in the female role, austere and feminine without resorting to campness. Cross-casting the part emphasised Paulina's repeated references to her own sex: "The office/ Becomes a woman best", "would by combat make her good, so were I/ A man" etc., which in turn strengthened both Paulina's daring in stepping outside of the expected bounds and at the same time her helplessness to defend Hermione as powerfully as she would wish. Although she and Antigonus, here a Geordie, showed no particular affection onstage, they stood together when confronting Leontes, and passed the babe gently between them.

A foreshadowing of the bear was seen in the young Mamillius, who crept up behind his mother wearing a pair of huge fake bear arms, which he put around her neck to frighten her. The family connection between the actors helped create a warm atmosphere for the domestic scene, with the heavily pregnant Hermione only annoyed for a few seconds at her son. Leontes' entrance in this scene was countered angrily by Hermione, who strode off with dignity at the accusations. This dignity had faded by the trial scene itself, to be replaced by despair and, for a second, joy at the reprieve of the oracle. This Hermione was devoted to her family first and foremost, and the news of Mamillius' death left her instantly unconscious on the stage.

The bear made another appearance in arm form as Antigonus walked towards the back of the stage. Leaning against the entrance, one of the huge arms snaked round and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him offstage in a moment of deliberate comedy. The Old Shepherd was interrupted in his ruminations shortly afterwards by a full-blown slapstick interlude as Antigonus entered screaming while a six foot black bear chased him around the audience and off again. The Shepherd's reaction, a shrug to the audience, perfectly encapsulated the production's approach to this scene - it's a ridiculous death and, rather than try to make it serious, they embraced the obvious comic possibilities and made it entertaining. What we lacked in the tragedy of Antigonus was made up for by a conscious shift in tone, a demonstration that we had now entered Bohemia, the laid-back antithesis to the high drama of Sicily.

An excellent Fergal McElherron, having just been eaten, kicked off the second half of the play as Autolycus with a song that veered from the folky to the mock-rocky, complete with hand signals. His energy and humour drove much of this second half, the actor proving himself particularly adept at 'Pick a Pocket or Two' style antics, grabbing purses easily from the Young Shepherd's waist belt. As a comically Oirish pedlar, too, he excelled, with flowing fake beard and a tray of colourful items with which he entertained the on-stage children. Yet this comic role was also moving in places, the edited script leaving Autolycus on stage for most of the Bohemia scenes, meaning that we seemed to 'see' most of the action from his perspective. His ongoing opportunism, while funny, meant that his final meeting with the newly-rich shepherds became something of a revelation to him, his penance seeming genuine as he knelt before them. Of course, his penance couldn't last and it wasn't long before he was stealing grapes from a servant.....

This is becoming a long review, and I'm going to have plenty of opportunity to go into detail when I review it for Shakespeare Bulletin, so I'll wrap up with one final observation. The statue scene worked extremely well, far more so than I'd ever expected it too. Stripped of stage trickery, Hermione simply walked on hidden behind some lords and, when revealed, stood still and silent, her robe flapping in the wind. Her pained expression, combined with her stillness, gave the scene a haunting feel that drew out the 17 years of Leontes' pain, which the actor played up to. Her eventual movements, then, drew a shiver down my spine as the 'statue' awoke. Yet another reminder of how simplicity can often (if not always) be the best approach. Another excellent tour from the Globe, and I'm starting to get the impression that the techniques learned while training at the Globe are even more effective when taken out of that building.


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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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