The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare

Propeller in association with The Touring Partnership

Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

From 31 January 2012 to 04 February 2012

Review by Velda Harris

Propeller’s all male company returns to the Lyceum with a production of The Winter’s Tale which is both deeply moving and wonderfully entertaining.

A striking set, designed by Michael Pavelka, gives the impression of being panelled in stainless steel, an appropriate material to accompany Leontes’s harsh and intractable jealous passion in the first half of the play; but which adapts effectively to the sunny climes of Bohemia in the second half. Shimmering candle reflections, a waning moon, a cosmic thunderstorm are transformed into a setting for a pastoral idyll under a cloudless blue sky. After the intervention of Time in the middle of the play, what was a tragedy now becomes a romantic comedy.

The text is cleverly adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren. Long speeches of exposition are edited and divided up between the entire cast, creating a choral effect which adds interest and moves the action swiftly on. Sound effects and music are an important feature of this company’s repertoire (most of the cast play a musical instrument and sing) so a grand piano is played in the opening court scene in Sicilia, and a complete pop band, The Bleatles, provides a delicious accompaniment to the rural summer festival.

There are strong performances from the principals, notably Robert Hands as Leontes, and Nicholas Asbury as Polixenes; and, in the second half, Tony Bell as Autolycus, a sub-Elvis lead singer and effective semi-professional thief. Every member of this company, whatever part they’re in, play with intelligence and wit, and a commitment to the success of the whole.

Part of the fascination of an all male production is to see what they do with the female roles. My benchmark is the 1967 As You Like It with Ronald Pickup and Charles Kaye as Rosalind and Celia. Their observation and replication of female mannerisms was a joy to behold. What struck me about the performances in this production was that although there was equivalently good observation of female behaviour, (Hermione constantly stroking and bearing the weight of her pregnant stomach, Perdita’s delicate distressed gestures when the marriage plans go awry), this was of secondary importance to the emotional integrity of the roles, which were played with great intensity by Richard Dempsey as Hermione, Vince Leigh as Paulina and Ben Allen as Perdita. The emotions presented could be perceived as supra sex and equally felt by men and women.

In contrast to the serious characters, the romping country girls in the pastoral scenes were the swaying members of a backing group or rock star groupies, hippy outfits, ra-ra skirts and all. Joyful and inventive parody.

This was a highly imaginative production full of innovative ideas, interesting decisions about emphasis and interpretation, and huge comic vitality. It worked well to have the same performer, Ben Allen, playing Mamillius (and later his ghost), Time, and Perdita. In the final reconciliation scene this made good sense because Perdita represented the dead child as well as the living, which softened the grief and made the reconciliation more acceptable. Mamillius’s dolls were used to good effect to represent key figures in miniature at key moments in the action. This was most effective in the bridging scene with the shipwreck and the bear.

This production must be seen for the intensity of the performances in the serious part of the play, and the sheer outrageous delight of the sun-lit comedy. Baa.

The Winter’s Tale continues at The Lyceum until Sat 4th February and then on an extensive tour until 21st July.