THE WINTER’S TALE
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Thursday 26th January, 2012
Propeller, an all-male Shakespearean company, present their take on one of old Will’s later plays and give us a very rewarding evening of theatre. The Winter’s Tale, one of my favourites, is like a fairytale without magic. It tells of Kings and Queens of faraway places – there is also much of Greek tragedy and myth here. Leontes’s fatal flaw, his rampant jealousy, sets in motion a chain of events that strips him of his loved ones and, through the fulfilment of prophecy, restores them to him.
The first half is very dark. The stark opulence (if you’ll allow the oxymoron) of Leontes’s palace – silvery walls and candlelight, a largely bare stage – is populated with courtiers in sharp suits and the ghostly figure of a boy in pyjamas, the doomed prince Mamillius. Mamillius oversees most of the action; he is almost Greek god-like in that he uses his toy figures as representations of the main characters. A model ship represents the journey across the sea. A teddy bear – no, I’ll come back to the teddy bear.
The female characters, in the first act, are created through the effective use of gesture and feminine mannerisms. We see Vince Leigh’s Paulina as the strong woman she is; Richard Dempsey’s Hermione is vulnerable, resolute and charming. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, the actors were and always had been male. Propeller continues this convention and so good are the characterisations you don’t even consider the lack of equal opportunities!
As jealous king Leontes, Robert Hands dominates the first half, talking himself into believing his wife’s imagined infidelity, taking rash action against her before crumbling beneath the weight of the tragedy he has brought upon himself. It is a towering yet layered performance.
But this is a play of two halves. The contrast between the end of the first and the beginning of the second could not be greater. The shepherd’s sheep-shearing celebrations are a kind of mini-Glastonbury festival, with resident band “The Bleatles” and a flock of performing sheep. It is a loud and brash affair with music ranging from the Rolling Stones through to Donna Summer and a marvellous rendition of Beyonce’s Single Ladies with Shakespearean lyrics. It is a truly delightful moment – here the female characters are garish and bewigged but nonetheless beautifully observed.
This rural idyll is soon disrupted by the arrival of the king of Bohemia, disguised as a scout leader. He sets in motion the chain of events that will bring about resolution and restoration. The jeopardy of the main characters is tempered by the antics of the comical ones: the pickpocket and conman Autolycus (a rousing Tony Bell – think Harry H Corbett does Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison) and Karl Davies (formerly Robert Sugden off of Emmerdale) revisiting his agricultural roots as the Young Shepherd. It is as though Shakespeare acknowledges the machinations of the tragic aspects of the story, far-fetched as they are, require ameliorating with some more palatable and down-to-earth mucking about. It’s a mash-up of styles that works brilliantly.
Even so, the conclusion, with the “statue” of the supposedly deceased Hermione coming to life and embracing her husband and her long-lost daughter is still a moving moment and you leave the theatre satisfied with a story well told.
My only disappointment with this superb production was the handling of the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare. It is always a much anticipated moment, Exit – pursued by a bear. Here, although foreshadowed by Mamillius cavorting around with a bearskin rug, we are shown a doll being smashed into by a teddy bear. It fits director Edward Hall’s concept of the production but I wanted something bigger and more surprising. I wanted to see a bear, damn it. It was a fleeting disappointment soon dismissed by my admiration and appreciation of this excellent company.