Winter

John Topliff

Manchester Shakespeare Company

Three Minute Theatre

From 17 November 2015 to 21 November 2015

Review by Andrew Edwards

Winter is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale. It follows various other reimaginings from the Manchester Shakespeare Company such as 12 Nights for Twelfth Night and so on.

Their laudable aim is to bring new audiences to Shakespeare. It is something with which this reviewer heartily concurs as the original is a favourite. Here the action has been changed from Bohemia to the City of Mancia, clearly meant as Manchester from its pronunciation as Mankia, and the time is split between 1950 and 1966. With many characters either lost or amalgamated, the bare bones of Shakespeare’s original still persist.

Dr Leo Tesman (in place of King Leontes) becomes insanely jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione and his best friend Paul (in place of Polixenes). Various characters try to intercede such as Hermione’s friend Pauline (in place of Paulina) and Leo’s war buddy now servant, Cameron (in place of Camillo).

None of their helping prevents the calamity when Leo sections Hermione for her supposed adultery while she gives birth in hospital to their baby Perdita. Paul has by this point fled the scene. A trial then ensues where Hermione appears to expire and news reaches Leo that their son has died; by this point we know that their new daughter Perdita has been smuggled out to the country. She will be looked after by country bumpkin Charlie Shepherd, and that’s where act one ends.

Act 2 after the interval is set 16 years later. Whereas there are plenty of Second World War references in the first act and a slightly too lengthy and very detailed narration of Leo’s blood-filled war experiences in the far east, here it is the '60s, which attracts the ire of various characters. There are jibes at Harold Wilson and '60s pop music which are lapped up by the audience and very well delivered.

While the first act is dramatic and at times teeters dangerously close to melodrama, the production really comes alive in the second. They have found the comedy and this is much more successful.

It is a familiar issue with The Winter’s Tale: how do you make the King’s irrational jealousy and its destructive consequences believable? It seems to come from nowhere. Perhaps that is the point, but it is difficult for an audience to stay with given we are shown no evidence of Hermione’s adultery and are likely to disbelieve the King.

In adapting the piece, they don’t entirely get round this problem. By the second act, Paul’s son is grown as is the lost daughter Perdita and they are going out with one another. The movement in this act is about if and or how Perdita and Frank (Florizel) can be betrothed when she appears to be so poor. The audience is also waiting to see if she can be reunited with Leo.

There are two really delightful sequences in this act. The first is when the Autolycus amalgam appears. Here she is called Aunty Mary and is brilliantly played by Charlotte Rhodes as a Gypsy-style con woman with Irish accent.

Charlotte has a very relaxed and easy stage presence. She immediately connects with the audience which is just what is needed for that character which regularly breaks the fourth wall as does Autolycus in the original. Charlotte’s character cheats, impersonates and lies with such breathtaking élan she is a joy to watch. It would be interesting to see Charlotte perform in work by Ben Jonson—but back to the play.

The second stand-out element is where Paul and his friend Cameron visit the traveller site to spy on his son Frank and Leo’s lost daughter Perdita. Dale Vicker as Paul is disguised as a magnificently camp clone cowboy with ridiculous moustache and he and Steve Cain, also in disguise as Cameron, get regular belly laughs for their tomfoolery including from this reviewer. Dale’s delivery is brilliantly timed and he is a gifted comic actor. He really lifts the piece at this point.

The production uses the intimate 3MT stage very well. There is a screen for some projections such as scenes of war in the first act and a few short inserts where Hermione’s spirit seems to be issuing warnings to the characters. The rest of the settings are very simple but the final reveal is very effectively realised.

Here the statue of Hermione is rather cleverly kept in suspended animation by Pauline who is a doctor and has kept this secret from Leo. The scene where she comes alive again is pure stage magic with flashes and blackouts and then there she is all billowing in white in the midst of dry ice. This scene like some other moments utilising the specially written music felt theatrical in the best sense.

The language, while largely in the vernacular, is occasionally heightened and more formal tending towards the Bard while never quite becoming actual poetry or verse. This formality works particularly well in the confrontation scenes such as Hermione’s trial when she faces Leo or those with Pauline when she chides him.

Tony Charnock plays Dr Leo Tesman and also Charlie Shepherd. He has significantly more success with the broad comedy of the latter bumpkin portrayal where it feels he is more confident and this is not surprising as the Leontes type character is so unsympathetic.

There is also a nod to the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare, but the bear is unseen. It is interesting that Tesman is the surname of Hedda Gabler’s husband but let that pass.

Rebecca-Claire Evans as Hermione is very good at being a wronged, innocent wife and expresses her suffering very stoically. Her mute revival at the end is genuinely moving. Louise Wilson has a strong stage presence and convinces as the staunch friend Pauline and also a brief and rather joyous comic turn as a ditzy traveller.

Debbie O’Hare is very engaging and polished as Perdita and a cameo as a nurse and Josh Fyson convinces both as Pauline’s husband Anthony as well as Frank the callow and rather arrogant youth. His line that he is going to be a huge pop star but all he has to do is learn the guitar gets a huge laugh because he times it so well. The pacing and delivery are well judged and the time never drags across the 2¼-hour run time.

While the lack of genuinely Shakespearean verse here is a loss—this reviewer dearly missed "too hot too hot" and "my heart dances but not for joy" and much else—what is offered by writer John Topliff, director Gina T Frost and the company is still testament to the brilliance of the Bard.

The redemption is in the comedy and the reconciliation, both of which, as they fall out by time, by means and place, did give much pleasure to my ear.