Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male ensemble, is back on tour with a revitalised version of The Winter’s Tale,a production originally seen in 2005. I didn’t see it that time round, but the 2012 version seems to be curiously imbalanced.
There is some superb acting on display, not least from Robert Hands who ensures that Leontes' all-consuming jealousy never descends into psychopathic rage. Later in the play, his physical decay and subsequent rejuvenation feel entirely genuine. Hands is currently playing the Bishop of Ely in Propeller's sister production of Henry V, and I'm very interested to see his performance in that, given how much he pours into Leontes.
Other stand-outs in this production include Vince Leigh as a strident Paulina and a superb comic turn from ex-Emmerdale actor Karl Davies, who plays the Young Shepherd. During the first act, the use of minimal props and scenery is superb, while the sound design verges on genius; Leontes' psychological descent is punctuated by wine glasses wailing eerily.
The imbalance I mentioned comes in the second act, when the action is transported to Bohemia. While the first half manages to place traditional Shakespeare in a 20th century context in a way that feels entirely natural, the second loses focus and becomes clumsy, bordering on embarrassing.
Tony Bell does his utmost with a louche, Ozzy-esque Autolycus, but the tonal shift that comes with the sheep hearing festival and other pastoral scenes (including a rock band called The Bleatles and a Beyoncé-inspired dance/singalong) is uncomfortable. Hall nobly aims to exaggerate the distinction between Bohemia and Sicilia, but the result is something that looks and feels like a primary schools-friendly production. It's not enough to ruin the play entirely, and these moments are sporadic, but they are so jarring and misplaced that the audience is left shifting uncomfortably.
Soon enough, however, we are back in Sicilia where the ending is given a truly magical feeling, largely by virtue of the superb cast. Propeller's The Winter's Tale could be a great piece of Shakespeare, but like Bohemia's sheep, it's in need of trimming.