Propeller’s production of The Winter’s Tale has enjoyed a lengthy tour of the UK, having started in 2011 and performed in conjunction with Henry V. Needless to say I was looking forward to a highly polished production from this all-male theatre company whose website claims its aim is to ‘mix a rigorous approach to the text with a modern, physical aesthetic’. The approach certainly makes for an unusual yet highly entertaining viewing experience, leaving me intrigued to see more of their repertoire.
Having never seen a production of The Winter’s Tale on the stage and only studied it for A-Level many years ago I was reminded what a simple story it is to follow, as it does not feature the myriad of characters Shakespeare so often favours.
Primarily, this is a visually pleasing, if not minimalistic and interesting production. The protagonists enter the stage for the first time, suited and booted in smoker’s jackets, immediately enhancing the accessibility for this young audience. Polixenes (Nicholas Asbury), guest from Bohemia is dressed in white and Leontes (Robert Hands), King of Sicilia in ominous black. Guests clink glasses, the metallic silvers of the set and the baby grand piano creating a classy atmosphere full of the joviality that is soon to cease.
I expected Robert Dempsey’s portrayal of Hermione to be fascinating, and the performance does not disappoint. At first I am concerned I would not be able to take the female lead’s plight seriously as Dempsey, his slight physique, floats about the stage with exuberant femininity that at times is nearly too much. However, the trial scene obliterates these doubts as he plays Hermione with great power and dignity and perhaps just a streak of vulnerability, so much so that I do not think I am alone in entirely forgetting that beneath the blood stained rags there is a man and not a woman.
Hand’s Leontes plays a convincing psychopath in the first act, his endless pacing of the stage giving him a menacing quality destined to end in his mental breakdown in the trial scene as he rocks pathetically back and forth on the floor, the substantial figure of Vince Leigh’s Paulina adding to the desperate nature of the self-inflicted situation. However, he sometimes lacks the qualities one comes to expect with a Shakespearian King. In his ‘inch-thick, knee-deep’ speech he is more reminiscent of a small boy’s tantrum than a respected, regal figure I have come to expect of the Bard’s lead characters who command the stage so brilliantly. Despite this, his pretence only assists the audience to side with the ill-treated Queen.
The Bohemian scenes mark a distinct change of gear; Tony Bell’s Autolycus bringing much needed light relief, he is portrayed as an aging rock star (yes!), his arrival signalled by marked changes to the set, made up to create the feeling of a music festival to add to the shades of the West End hit We Will Rock You (not a comparison I ever thought I would make for PlayShakespeare.com). I think I even spotted a smoke machine at one point. Bell flounces shamelessly around the stage, his faithful roadies Mopsa and Dorcas dressed in a jumble of colourful mismatched chaos. Bell certainly makes for a loveable vagabond, a real highlight of this fascinating production. I could not help but admire director Edward Hall’s brave artistic decisions. This is exactly how Shakespeare should be done if it is to engage a younger audience and remain accessible
For the traditionalist, the high jinks early in Act Two do not distract from what Hall does to make for a thoughtfully arranged and elegant climax. The role of Mamillius is doubled up with Perdita, a nice touch and played skilfully by Ben Allen even if it does take a moment to get acclimatised to a full sized grown man playing the role of small boy; this is soon forgotten as he watches on vulnerably from above the main set during his mother’s trial, creating audience empathy a-plenty. By the time he has swapped guises into the sixteen year old Perdita, no longer is anyone questioning the sexual ambiguity but simply enjoying the relationship presented between herself and Florizel (Finn Hanlon) through which it is surely some of the most moving love poetry ever written used to express their wooing. It is hard not to be swept along.
One leaves the theatre after this lengthy production unsure what to make of the package as a whole, there is so much to consider artistically as well as the individual performances, it becomes difficult to judge as a whole entity. It is unquestionably a remarkable production, dragging what could have been a staid second act bang up to date as well as striving to keep the purists pleased. I was not totally convinced by the advantages of an all-male company despite their talented performances but if the unusual artistic choices signal the future of Shakespearian productions, I cannot help but feel it will remain a bright one.