The Winter’s Tale has been regarded over the years as one of the most problematic of Shakespeare’s works, a difficult to achieve blend of emotional drama and light-hearted comedy. Director Nina Brazier and composition group The Hermes Experiment add to the mix with this eclectic production at The Cockpit. They include an emphasis on movement work alongside a quartet playing a mostly improvised soundtrack.

The play has been heavily cut, lasting around an hour. This is a wise move considering the experimental nature of the performance. We follow King Leontes, whose wife Hermione impresses a fellow King slightly too much with her powers of. This in turn leads to delusions from Leontes that his wife has been adulterous in the past, and that his child is in fact a bastard. With fairly blank costume and a blanker still set, there is no suggestion of either location or time, thus focusing on the form of the production and the performances of those within.

In terms of the stylistic choices behind the piece, this is a decidedly mixed bag, an attempt at a theatrical language that never quite gels. Scenes are tightly rehearsed and for the most part clear, carrying a nice sense of polish aside from a few laboured transitions. The movement work seeks to meld the ensemble with dialogue, acting as a form of representing the emotions of characters on stage. Almost vignettes that look to compliment action. The problem with this is the choreography itself tends to slip into moves that are both uninteresting and obvious, all too easily portraying what we as an audience already know.

The live musicians that soundtrack the piece have been handed what composer Kim Ashton calls ‘a compilation of instructions: including only sparse musical notes’. What results is a soundtrack that has potential. If combined with movement and dialogue effectively, this could be a wonderful experience, and something genuinely unique. Unfortunately, the score comes across as disappointingly weak. Singer Heloise Werner has a striking, atmospheric voice, but little is conveyed through the sound consonants that emanate from the cast. The instruments are used inventively but sometimes can drown out dialogue, causing narrative confusion.

The actors must thus compete with this collision of movement and sound and attempt to stand on their own feet. William McGeough as Leontes has the difficult task of portraying a character that is entirely irrational in his convictions, and in this edited version of the script slips all too easily into rage. But he speaks the text well and is especially effective in the latter half. Sadie Parsons adds some nice touches as Hermione, and overall the ensemble is well polished, albeit with some mixed results in small character parts.

The stark design from Sophie Mosberger places a bare stage in front of the audience, with flowers bunched in parts. They seem loosely symbolic of the production of The Winter’s Tale it is used to frame: interesting fragments of beauty, but never quite coming together.

The Winter’s Tale was performed at The Cockpit for a one-off performance. For more information and tickets for The Hermes Experiment, see here.

Photo: Cathy Pyle