Propeller has a reputation for re-imagining Shakespeare through an innovative approach to the text and a physical aesthetic. Artistic Director Edward Hall’s interpretation of The Winter’s Tale is no exception, yet the company openly embraces Elizabethan performance traditions, with productions featuring all-male casts. But is there an appeal to this version of Shakespeare’s notoriously problematic play that goes above and beyond men in dresses and an exit pursued by a bear?
Telling the story of a king’s jealous paranoia, The Winter’s Tale sees Leontes accuse his blameless wife Hermione and friend Polixenes of adultery, and banish his newborn daughter. Sixteen years pass until we then meet the princess Perdita, who, having been rescued by a shepherd, has fallen in love with Polixenes’s son. The play feels experimental in style, shifting mercurially from tragedy to comedy. The strength of Propeller’s version is the way it embraces, rather than fighting against, these incongruities, in both design and performance. Much about this production is visually striking, from the prison-like set of mirrored steel to the eerie Ken-doll-sized mannequins and ritualistic six-foot candelabras that populate the stage.
The first half of the play, a sombre Sicilia in the 1940s, captures Leontes’ descent into paranoia immaculately. At the helm, Robert Hands brings humanity to the king’s stark melancholia, but Richard Dempsey as a statuesque Hermione is riveting, skilfully evoking the queen’s calm serenity and steadiness. As I was ideologically adverse to the exclusion of women from the stage, it was with surprise that I warmed so quickly to Dempsey’s Hermione. Catherine Love recently noted on The Guardian that audiences love the comedy of men playing women. Here, there were certainly titters at the initial appearance of a pregnant Hermione, but by the time we see her on trial, fresh from labour in a blood-stained shift, I certainly no longer saw a man playing a woman. I believed her femininity in all its incarnations, from strength to vulnerability. Vince Leigh too gives a standout performance as Paulina, embodying a thousand shades of power, humour, irony, fear and wisdom.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of Shakespeare’s text is the change of location to Bohemia, 16 years later. Yet this was where the flair of Hall’s production really took flight. The action fast-forwards to the swinging ’60s, Shakespeare’s original pastoral setting transformed into a flower-power festival complete with neon tents, ‘The Bleatles’ singing sheep band and the rock-god rogue Autolycus. Tony Bell can’t escape a mention here for the genuine hilarity of Autolycus’ debauched double act with Karl Davies’ loveably clueless shepherd. We are in the territory of stereotypes – of painted red lips, falsettos and bustiers – but as Autolycus presides over an a capella dance-off to Beyonce’s Single Ladies, there’s not a straight face to be seen.
Purists will question the ad-libbing that goes on here, but the Woodstock-esque setting captures perfectly Perdita’s freedom and lust for life, portrayed adeptly by Ben Allen. However, Allen is at his best as Leontes’ eerily silent son, Mamillius, who oversees the disturbing events of the first half in striped pyjamas. In a clever conceit, the teddy bear he clutches throughout the play becomes the bear that tears Antigonus to pieces. Hall creates a dreamy atmosphere of child’s play that enhances the nightmarish quality of Leontes’ madness, and works perfectly here to solve the problem of the play’s infamously tricky stage direction.
A production of two halves – but justifiably so – and one that captures cleverly the fluctuations of the play. Joyful and devastating in equal measure, this really is Shakespeare for a new generation; a generation that will relish this Winter’s Tale‘s mash up of Levi-sporting sheep and beatboxing shepherds. The revelation of the evening? Shakespeare coined the phrase “jog on”. Don’t believe me? Jog on and read Act IV, Scene 2.
The Winter’s Tale is currently playing at the Sheffield Lyceum until 4 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website here.
The production then tours in rep with Henry V until July 2012. For more information and to book tickets, visit Propeller’s website here.