February 2, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (Propeller) @ Sheffield Lyceum

Writing about web page http://propeller.org.uk/current-productions/henry-v-and-the-winters-tale

Edward Hall’s company Propeller has always been playful. Whether entertaining audiences in foyers, offering grand guignol torture scenes or turning Portia into a drag queen, the company has delighted in its own performativity. In doing so, their shows tread a fine line between the parodic and the emotive. While elements of the farcicial and ridiculous occasionally threatened to tip the play over into music-hall, at the heart of Propeller’s philosophy is a devotion to text and to the human heart of Shakespeare’s plays. As such, while the music, nudity and belly-laughs may have got the biggest reactions from the Sheffield audience, this was in many ways the quietest and chillest Winter’s Tale I’ve ever seen.

The key innovation here was the foregrounding of Mamillius. From the start, Leontes’ palace was established as his son’s playground. Ben Allen, in pyjamas and shuffling and shrugging with all the self-consciousness of the overgrown child, played with a set of modelling dolls scattered around the stage as sand fell from the ceiling and filled a small wheelbarrow. Three of the dolls – dressed as Hermione, Polixenes and Leontes – gave the child the opportunity to indicate his awareness of the growing tensions, as he pushed them together in positions of love and aggression. The ominous nature of this opening was heightened by the appearance of men in the shadows, holding brandy glasses which they rubbed to create an eerie tone that quickly became unbearable, an effect repeated at key moments throughout the play.

The scene sprang into life, and Mamillius ran about the stage, gleefully playing with the adults who laughed at his antics. Drawing, as ever, on the dynamics of male social rituals that an all-male cast brings to the fore, this was a raucous company, bandying innuendoes and sharing cigars as they celebrated their own egos. Richard Dempsey’s heavily pregnant Hermione moved gracefully among the men, offering her own share of quick quips and giving the men as good as they got.

The rot set in quickly, and Mamillius remained the focus throughout. Leontes (Robert Hands) alternately held his son closely and barked at him to leave while glaring at Hermione and Polixenes, reduced to slow motion and holding hands playfully. Hands trod a fine balance between outbursts of rage and the internalisation of his jealousy, keeping the scene as rooted in psychological credibility as possible. Yet Propeller’s performance style depends a great deal on direct address, thus allowing Hands to explain rather than perform his rage, while Mamillius watched on.

The aim throughout the first act was to contrast Leontes’ blustering patriarchal rage (implicitly supported by the lackeys who had laughed at every joke in the earlier scenes) with the stillness and sensibility of the play’s women and children. Shockingly, when interrupting the women’s private scene, Leontes picked up the heavily pregnant Hermione under her stomach, and dropped her heavily back on her feet, leaving her in pain as she went into early labour. Despite this, Dempsey offered a wonderful display of pained restraint, gathering her composure as she wished him to be sorry. Mamillius’ own decline began at this point as he watched his mother led away, and subsequently he appeared on a balcony overlooking the stage. A further moment of tension was added as Vince Leigh’s fascinating Paulina – earrings and loose trousers differentiating her status, but giving her an odd sense of authority – brought in a tiny bundle of clothes to present to Leontes and laid it at his feet, giving the impression that he could at any moment stamp on the child’s head.

The speeded-up first half cut Cleomenes and Dion’s brief scene and split the opening dialogue between the entire cast, who commented on Mamillius as he played, again keeping the focus on the core family- even Nicholas Asbury’s rather tempestuous Polixenes and Chris Myles’s somewhat scheming Camillo were passed over quickly. The emotional payoff came in the trial scene, where Hermione – shaven-headed and still wearing her bloody birthing robe – was brought to stand before a microphone as paparazzi in the stalls snapped pictures and yelled comments. The contrast between her continuing steadfastness and Leontes’ manic activity was clear, and cleverly switched as Leontes became still as he read the prophecy while Hermione and the rest of the company relaxed. The actual moment of his rejection was passed over too quickly for it to be really effective, his words immediately covered by a crash of thunder and the news of Mamillius’ death, not giving opportunity for the severity of his statement to be registered. However, as children and women vanished from the scene, the effect was certainly felt.

The transition into the interval again focused around Mamillius, who re-entered as Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Antigonus placed the baby on an empy stage. As thunder rolled and the noise of a bear was heard, Mamillius produced a doll of Antigonus and a toy bear, and he proceeded to act out the graphic savagery of the attack with the gusto of a child. The playfulness of this moment jarred effectively against the horror of the imagined scene, and played well into the leisurely introduction of John Dougall’s fantastic Yorkshire farmer and Karl Davies’s hyperactive Young Shepherd. Following the interval, the transition was made complete as Mamillius reappeared and delivered the Chorus in the person of Time, introducing the characters of the second half by bringing them on stage and adding some grey make-up to Camillo and Polixenes while himself taking over Perdita’s role.

Bohemia rather obviously drew on a 60s aesthetic, combining a Woodstock hippy enclave with a rock n’roll band set up announcing itself as "The Bleatles". What made these scenes stand out was their sheer energy and hysterical inventiveness, forming a fantastic contrast with the rather steady scenes of the first half. The cast became a Chorus of sheep, wearing woolly leg warmers and hats, who acted as the onstage band when not in character. Tony Bell, so fantastic as Dr. Pinch in last year’s Comedy of Errors, essentially reprised his role in the form of Autolycus, appearing from stage mist as if Mick Jagger and leading the sheep in a range of glammy rock songs, interspersed with crude comments to ladies in the audience. Bell, as ever, owned the stage whenever he was on, particularly in a wonderful routine with Davies which began with pinching his pockets and ended with him removing the latter’s shorts as he strode confidently offstage.

The sheep-shearing feast, so often interminable, was here joyous. Heavily cut, but featuring some wonderful dance routines led by Dempsey’s Dorcas and Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa, the scene captured the carnival atmosphere with a series of comic highlights, such as the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo disguised as a scoutmaster and a (moustachioed) girl guide and a full-on scrap between Mopsa and Dorcas. Colourful and vibrant, the pleasure of this scene made the eventual revelation of Polixenes, and the trauma of the country folk (Dougall simply sat down, a sublime moment that fully captured the Old Shepherd’s shock with the simplest of gestures) all the more powerful. The working out of the plot was little more than a working out, although Bell’s impersonation of a courtier and the tremulous fear of the two Shepherds was genuinely funny, but the whole served to set up a fine denouement.

Leontes reappeared in a wheelchair, pushed gently by Paulina. He took Florizel and Perdita to his arms, giving the non-verbal promise of support even as he criticised their dishonesty, and threw away his walking stick as he followed them off-stage to meet his old friend. The power of the scene was in the joy shown by a character who had thus far shown none, leading us into an expectation of warmth. The reunion scene was played out in a series of tableaux while members of the cast narrated the meeting; and then all gathered for the conclusion. Through a clever piece of stage misdirection, Hermione was ‘revealed’ downstage, facing away from the audience and still enough to create the illusion of non-movement. As she came to life, the company played out the awe and reverence of the moment to the soft notes of a piano, all taking hands and underplaying emotion, building beautifully to Leontes’ expected happiness. Yet as he reunited Polixenes and Hermione, he found himself excluded. Holding a candle as the rest of the stage lights dimmed, he moved towards each of his family members, who retreated away into the shadows. As he grew more isolated in the light of his candle, Mamillius suddenly reappeared (Allen having made a quick costume change). Leontes opened his mouth in hope and stepped towards his lost son. Mamillius shook his head quietly and, in a gesture that chillingly ended the production on a reminder of the consequences of jealousy, blew out the candle.

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