By William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall
Designed by Michael Pavelka
His Majesty’s Theatre
Until February 25
It’s a bonus, this late tale of William Shakespeare, here in a gorgeous looking, beautifully spoken and often riotously staged production by the English company, Propeller.
The bonus is perhaps also the reason The Winter’s Tale doesn’t rank higher among Shakespeare’s plays, despite containing some of his finest writing and most vivid characters: it’s really two short plays yoked together, worlds apart in style and substance. The good news is that Propeller revels in their differences, and does both more than justice.
In the first, the svelte harmony of the urbane, sophisticated court of Sicilia is shattered when its king, Leontes (Robert Hands), convinces himself his pregnant wife Hermione (Richard Dempsey) is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Nicholas Asbury), the king of Bohemia. In the ensuing cataclysm, Hermione and their son Mamillius (Ben Allen) die of grief before the spell into which Leontes has descended is abruptly broken.
As an anatomy of sexual jealousy, it is unparalleled in Shakespeare; Leontes needs no Iago to fall into the abyss. As a master class in the potential for savagery in our language it has no betters: Leontes’ “my wife is slippery” speech is as dangerous and repugnant as a man could make; his great “nothing” speech towers over the nihilists he anticipated by over two centuries.
In the different, pastoral world the play inhabits after the interval, a noble prince, Florizel (Finn Hanlon), and his beloved shepherdess Perdita (the hard-working Ben Allen again), pledge their troth, only to be torn apart by his furious father.
There is little in love poetry to match the wooing of Perdita and Florizel; she is sweet and wise; he has the ardour and resolve to deserve her.
Propeller and the audience have tons of fun in director Edward Hall’s celebrated family tradition as Act IV’s shearing festival turns into a breakneck melange of Shakespeare’s best stage music and some delicious rock parodies. There’s Beyonce’s Single Ladies and the riff from Sympathy for the Devil. And there’s Autolycus (Tony Bell), as appealing and appalling a rogue as Shakespeare ever slid onto a stage, looking for all the world like Jon English playing Freddie Mercury playing Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with that tune’s final, falling piano line. And there are lots of men playing sheep.
It is all glorious stuff, and if it steamrollers some moments of delicate beauty in the text – I was sorry to see Florizel’s devout “all your acts are queens” speech turned into a croon, for example – it’s a price well worth paying.
Florizel, you might have guessed, is the prince of Bohemia, and his father is Polixenes. Perdita, who, we learn, was found abandoned as a baby by an old shepherd (John Dougall) and his son (Karl Davies), turns out to be the self-same infant princess banished by Leontes in the first play.
After some fancy footwork by Camillo (Chris Myles), loyal factotum of both kings, and Hermione’s stately confidante Paulina (Vince Leigh), all is revealed, all forgiven, Hermione returns from the dead and they all live happily ever after – except of course, for Mamillius, and Paulina’s unfortunate husband Antigonus (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), who is, famously, eaten by a bear during proceedings.
In Michael Pavelka’s sharp, contemporary design for Sicilia, the semi-transparent and semi-mirrored walls show obscure reflections and dim shapes behind. Candles cast low light, a watery moon waxes and wanes with malevolent beauty over the parapets. The characters, in Italian haute couture, hold themselves erect, and tight, adjusting their positions precisely to be just there, just so. In this measured, diplomatic setting, Hands’ outstanding Leontes raves in his magnifiicent derangement.
Everything changes in Bohemia. We’re at the Big Day Out, complete with stage, road cases, smoke machines and guitars. The characters lounge about, break into dances, fart and smooch. The famous logo on the drumkit, slightly altered, reads “The Bleatles”; it’s a taste of what’s to come.My companion at the show was sad to see men playing three of Shakespeare’s best female roles. I agree with her. I’ve heard all the arguments for single-gender productions, but I don’t buy into any of them. Sure, Shakespeare’s casts were originally all male – but we used to tip our waste out on the street then, too. I can think of no benefit from the lack of female actors, and no drawback from having them, that would lessen either this marvellous production or the terrific company that staged it.
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian link here