Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller Theatre company seeks to perform Shakespeare’s plays “with great clarity and speed and …imagination in the staging”. With this intense and moving account of The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare’s problematic late romance, they continue to fulfil their brief.
King Leontes’ unfounded jealousy leads him to accuse his Queen Hermione of committing adultery with his best friend King Polixenes, setting in motion tragic events that appear to lose him everything - Queen, friend, his young son Mamilius and his baby daughter Perdita.
But this is romance rather than tragedy. The second half shows us ‘things new born’, in contrast to the “things dying” of the first half, and taking place 16 years later, suggests “time is a great healer”. Time's also a character in the play, and Hall ingeniously gives this role to the actor playing Mamilius, an ever more anguished eavesdropper on the events of the first half. Is the whole ‘old tale’ actually dreamed up by Mamilius? With his all-male cast, Hall can go further – Mamilius can play any role he pleases in his story, so he becomes Perdita – the lost daughter who must be found to bring about redemption and consolation.
Within this overarching concept, this wonderfully strong company create a gallery of convincing men - and especially women. Simon Scardifield’s dignified Hermione is all the more touching for his undisguised thinning hair. And he and Jules Werner share with us the riotous fun of playing randy shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas. Adam Levy’s commanding Paulina orchestrates Leontes’ redemption with warmth - and bossiness! And Tam Williams’ joyously feisty Perdita manages to suggest subtle shades of her brother Mamilius.
Court and country folk, the male characters are as finely drawn. Richard Clothier’s despotic Leontes is first chilling, then heartbreaking in repentance. Chris Myles and James Tucker make a music hall double act, sly and naïve, of the old and young shepherds. But comic honours go to Tony Bell’s outrageously amoral polymorphic Autolycus, the rogue who brings trouble to the paradise of Arcadian Bohemia.
Designer Michael Pavelka sets the dark and shocking Sicilian scenes of the play’s first half in a darkly atmospheric Italianate palace with a feel of 1950s Italian chic – and Mafioso menace. Pavelka cites the glorious exuberance of Zorba the Greek as the inspiration for the contrasting sunshine of Bohemia that lights up the second half. Complemented by Ben Ormerod’s mood-enhancing lighting and a magical soundscape, the sense of time and place make the “old tale” all the more gripping.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury)