Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd May, 2012
The mighty Propeller theatre company’s The Winter’s Tale delighted and entertained me a few months ago and so I was really looking forward to seeing the other half of their currently touring double bill.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The cast forms a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Through the “O, for a muse of fire!” opening speech, they take it in turns to appeal to our imaginations to provide all the scenery, cast of thousands and special effects they are unable to bring onto the stage. From the get-go, Shakespeare’s brilliance gets to work. This speech is full of false modesty but it is also a direct lesson in how Narrative Theatre works. The play is crammed with familiar lines but to appreciate the full power of the language you have to hear the rhetoric in context.
Director Edward Hall gives Shakespeare room to work on us. This is a war story showing not just the high and mighty, but also the common men from all walks of life. The clever use of The Clash’s London Calling during one of the transitions brings this to the fore. Actors double and treble up on characters and are chorus to each other’s history, hardly ever leaving the stage. They are a tight and talented ensemble. Humour, Shakespeare’s and Hall’s, counterpoints the darker scenes. The Dauphin (Gunnar Cauthery) gives us a quick burst of the theme from ‘Allo, ‘Allo! on the accordion to play the French King onto the stage. As French Princess Katherine, Karl Davies (it’s an all-male company) is hilarious without being outré. Contrast this with his earlier experience as the traitor Lord Scroop and you have a prime example of what this production does best. Light and dark are each thrown into sharp relief.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry is more effective in the dramatic scenes than the comic ones, giving the men that most famous of pep talks or expressing his heartbreak over the treachery of his closest friends. Henry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader – defeating the enemy, “down” with the common folk and he gets the girl. The only thing he doesn’t do is croon like Barack Obama.
I also particularly liked Chris Myles as Katherine’s gentlewoman/chaperone but it’s unfair to single out performances from this happy few.
The play ends with the marriage of Henry to Katherine, uniting England to old enemy France. But this is a surprisingly downbeat moment. In silence, Henry hands the kneeling Katherine his crown and walks away. It is as though all he has fought for is surrendered. This has resonances with Europe today. We won the war (in case you were unaware!) but we are perhaps in danger of yielding too much power to our continental neighbours. Recent announcements of the sharing of defences between England and France would surely rankle with this King Henry.
A rousing and entertaining production, funny, vibrant and affecting, that proves yet again that Propeller is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to staging Shakespeare today. Edward Hall is a ruddy genius.