Wednesday 11 July 2012

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Propeller)

The first time I saw The Winter's Tale, at the RSC some time in the '90s, I remember really enjoying it, but subsequent productions have put me off the play: It's famously varied in tone and style, lurching from a dark drama of jealousy into a raucous pastoral comedy, before veering off into a gently lyrical fairytale ending. All too often it seems to descend into something maudlin and flat, and it's one Shakespeare play I've most often been bored in. This year it's one of the two shows being toured by Ed Hall's all-male Propeller company, which for the second year is taking up residence for a fortnight at Hampstead. I was optimistic that a company with such a distinct identity and joyous performance style  could reawaken what I'd originally liked about the play. Andy, meanwhile, was new both to The Winter's Tale and to Propeller.

Leontes, King of Sicilia (Robert Hands) and his heavily pregnant wife Hermione (Richard Dempsey) are entertaining their good friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Nicholas Asbury.) Out of nowhere, Leontes becomes convinced that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair, and his jealousy prompts him to imprison and publicly shame the innocent wife, and try to have his friend assassinated. His actions have unforeseen tragic consequences that only the second half's magical events can put right. The first half of the play is performed in an uncharacteristically pared-back style by Propeller's standards, but is none the worse for it. Punctuated occasionally by the eerie music made by the cast running their fingers round the rims of brandy glasses, it's an intense self-contained drama anchored by Hands' increasingly unhinged and eventually devastated Leontes.

The company's signature laddish style with heavy doses of live music comes into its own after the interval when we jump forward 16 years and to Bohemia, where the next generation gets the chance to make up for the sins of the father. The shepherding community gets its own rock band made up of sheep (The Bleatles) and led by the con-man Autolycus, a character who can influence the tone of the last two acts a lot - I've seen him played as a pretty dark crook but Tony Bell's take is very much the classic Lord of Misrule, his initial pick-pocketing scene seeing him gradually strip Karl Davies' unsuspecting Young Shepherd down to a g-string (a development I have no complaints with.) The pastoral scenes are a joy of silly developments, with Shakespeare's songs getting a Beyoncé makeover, Chris Myles' moustached Camillo attempting to disguise himself as a girl guide, and where last year's Richard III saw me splashed with Kensington Gore, this year being in the front row meant a flung garter belt landed on my head. (Could have been worse; could have been the sheep droppings or the used condom.)

One thing that tends to strike me about The Winter's Tale is the fact that Leontes' son Mamillius, whose death is one of the tragedies to befall the king after he falsely accuses his wife, is completely forgotten about in the second half of the play, and Hall has dealt with this in an interesting way: The pyjama-clad Mamillius is seen observing much of his father's anger in the early scenes, and after his death becomes the narrator, Time, who takes us to the change of scenery. The all-male casting also means Ben Allen can go from playing the boy to then becoming his sister Perdita, whose relationship with Polixenes' son Florizel (Finn Hanlon) will heal the rift between the kingdoms. The production is ambiguous on whether the climactic scene of Hermione's statue coming to life should be taken literally or not (I tend to think she faked her death and then posed as her own statue when she decided Leontes had suffered enough) but even after that there's another glimpse of the ghostly child whose fate has been forgotten in the happy ending.

Andy's first experience of both The Winter's Tale and Propeller was a positive one, he was impressed by the taut first three acts and Hands' emotional performance, and was then surprised to find himself enjoying the scenes after the interval even more than those before (whereas I'm used to finding Act IV the play's main saving grace.) There's no Swainsbury or Tighe this year but the company doesn't fail in providing something nice to look at - as well as Davies and Allen there's Gunnar Cauthery and Dominic Thorburn, the latter still attractive when playing a sheep, to the point where it's frankly a bit disturbing. Overall this has probably gone to the top of my list of Winter's Tales - perhaps not enough to convert me to it but for a play which has in the past often bored me, this is a speedy three hours.

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 21st of July at Hampstead Theatre; then continuing on tour to Galway.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.


  1. Thorburn basically spent the first half and the last act of the play loitering attractively in a very nice suit. Thorburn is AWESOME.

    I also always assume Hermione's death was faked and the statue thing was an elaborate pretence on Paulina's part, but the Globe to Globe production from Nigeria has now opened me up to the possibility real magic may be involved. Remind me to tell you about it sometime, it hurt my heart a LOT. :3

    1. I got the impression from your tweets that the G2G one had Hermione turn back into a statue after the big reunion, which obviously you can only do if you take the scene literally in the first place. Actually most I've seen have leaned to the side of her having faked her death, or maybe I'm just interpreting it that way - Paulina's "argh, don't touch her the, er, paint's still wet, yeah that sounds plausible" moment is a big clue to seeing it that way. If anything Propeller was one of the more ambiguous I've seen.

      Although not to the same extent as taking Hermione away again, I thought Propeller's version had a hint of ending with a bit of a kick in the teeth too - "O hai it's me, the dead son you never mentioned again once your wife carked it. No, actually I will not be coming back to life as well, 'bye."

    2. Seeing this tomorrow!! The G2G one did indeed have Herminone turn back into a statue and then her spirit left her body and became a Oya, the Yoruba goddess. It sounds weird but it was really beautifully done... was a real tear jerker.

  2. OMG! I loved this! So many good things in my head to say about this production..... My only complaint is that it was hard for me to see Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as anything other than Henry V.

    Throughout the first half i was like "Come on Henry V! sort out this crazy King Leontes! Kick his ass!"

    Then I was like... "OMG! Henry V was eaten by a bear!!!" :-)

    1. I'm obviously seeing them the right way round then. It was interesting to see Antigonus played as so much younger than usual. Especially given Paulina is rarely cast as an old lady, there's no real reason why her husband should always be played as a white-bearded ancient of days.

  3. This was indeed a hugely enjoyable production. I was at the last night, and Karl ran on naked save for two strategic leaves, and then flashed his bare bum at us. No complaints