Thursday, May 12, 2005

"like an old tale": The Winter's Tale

"like an old tale": The Winter's Tale

Time for another review then, normal self indulgent rules apply....

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Of all of Shakespeare's 'Romances' The Winter's Tale is undoubtedly the most generically puzzling. Certainly it fails to retreat as successfully into the twilight world of fantasy as do Pericles, Cymbeline or The Tempest. Without the provocation of even Posthumus, let alone Othello, Leontes, king of Scillia, embarks on a course of action, fuelled by his jealously, which in its terrifying intensity tears apart his family. Sixteen years, and some comedy shepherds, later Shakespeare apparently manages to reconcile the remaining members of the family and provide them with the sort of ending that the Romances yearn for. But time cannot bring back the dead and thus The Winter's Tale stands as a particularly wistful and complex member of the Romance family. Edward Hall and the Propeller company, however, embrace this complexity and in doing so provide an engagingly subtle, often beautiful and genuinely amusing production.

Fittingly for a play which proclaims itself to be a "tale" Hall has taken story telling as his central motif. The play thus becomes a tale told by Mamillius, Leontes and Hermione's son who proves to be one of its casulties. Through the eyes of this pyjama clad boy the action unfolds as the audience takes the imaginative leap with him. Mamillius's wooden dolls become embroiled in the action, his toy boat takes Antigonus and Perdita to Bohemia and, triumphantly, his teddy bear becomes the source of the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare - "exit pursued by a bear". Thus the production embraces the imagination and in doing so embraces the possibilities and the artifice of theatre. Actors play sheep, Autolycus becomes Bohemia's answer to Elvis, Perdita and Florizel dance in the aisles. The all male cast and the inevitable, and telling, doubling of roles adds to this unabashed celebration of story telling.

Propeller is very much an ensemble company, all 12 members attended the entirety of the five week rehearsal process, and this is undoubtedly telling in the performance. No one misses a beat and everyone carries the emotional load. Simon Scardifield as Hermione, however, proves to be outstanding. As Hermione stands at her trial, isolated and splattered in blood from the birth of Perdita, Scardifield radiates both intense courage in the face of Leontes's unprovoked tyranny and intense sorrow. From this point onwards it is clear that this is no Hermione who will be able to forgive Leontes. As the wide-eyed and intensely vulnerable Mamillius, Tam Williams is more than capable of providing the silent centre to the play and, undoubtedly with the benefit of some judicious cuts, James Tucker as the Young Shepherd, riding his sheep and losing all of his clothes - literally - to Autolycus, proves to be endearingly engaging.

When the action moves from the tyranny of Leontes court following the apparent death of Hermione and the actual death of Mamillius to Bohemia the atmosphere of the production changes, with its festivity, songs and dancing, to embrace the comic pastoral of Shakespeare's play. Indeed the doubling of Mamillius/Perdita and the dead Antingonus with Florinzel points to the recovery and continuation of life. Hall, however, is not afraid of unearthing the counter voice and thus as the King of Bohemia rages over his son's plan to marry the apparent Shepherdess, Perdita, we are presented with the same terrifying excess of emotion that characterised Leontes's destruction. History it seems, is destined to repeat itself.

From this point onwards the production gently slips away from the comic and resolutely resists the urge to provide a happy ending. Hermione may not be dead, but it is clear as she coldly places her arms around Leontes that she cannot forgive him. And the final moments of the play point not those united but to those who have been forever seperated. Antingonus's wife Paulina is left to grieve and poignantly, as Leontes remains alone on stage left by all those who cannot forgive him, Tam Williams sheds Perdita's clothing for Mamillius's pyjamas. The final image, as the play recedes into darkness, is of father and dead son.

During the aftershow discussion a member of one of the school parties watching questioned whether the actors thought - because the play had been so accessible - that they had modernised it. I think the answer to this is a rather stark, definitely not. This is not Shakespeare 4 Kids, it is simply Shakespeare for the theatre. Hall and Propeller have embraced the nuances of an undoubtedly difficult, but eminently watchable, play and produced something hauntingly beautiful. And it remains a celebration of the theatre, and the play itself, to the very last; as Mamillius blows out his candle we cannot quite be sure if what we have seen is simply a tale he has created to pass a winter's evening. And so, the story continues.

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Given that I like my Shakespeare wistful, I've always had a soft spot for The Winter's Tale and I really was thrilled with what they did to the play. It kind of smacks of really detailed textual understanding, which was bound to get me over-excited. I confess to not having found the actors as sheep thing quite as hilarious as the rest of the audience though, mainly because I saw it done in an outstanding production of As You Like It a couple of years ago and wet myself then. I did find the unexpected nudity very amusing though.

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