The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
Propeller
The Lowry, Salford

The Winter's Tale Credit: Propeller

Edward Hall's all-male Shakespeare company Propeller brings another pair of plays to Salford, both performed by the same company of actors: The Winter's Tale and Henry V.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's later plays, labelled "romances" because they do not fit easily into other categories: this play has the structure largely of a comedy but there is a deep thread of the older playwright's melancholy running through it and a violence of emotion and action that is far from comedic.

The audience enters to see designer Michael Pavelka's harsh steel-lined stage—effective apart from some distracting reflections of waiting actors and a computer screen from backstage—with a floor littered with Antony Gormley-esque blank, human figures, which turn out to be Mamillius's dolls. Mamillius, the young son of Leontes, in pyjamas and bare feet (until a glass was accidentally smashed) becomes an ever-present observer of the breakdown of his parents' marriage, later becoming narrator as Time and then his own sister Perdita.

In modern dress, the story unfolds of Leontes, King of Sicilia, irrationally suspecting his pregnant wife Hermione of betraying him with his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Deaf to persuasion or evidence and even to the pronouncements of the Delphic Oracle, he has his newborn daughter left on a hillside to suffer almost certain death and his wife and son both die. This is hardly the stuff of comedy, but we then jump to sixteen years later when a series of unlikely coincidences with a lot of mythic weirdness thrown in produce a more positive outcome.

While the company is all-male, the characters aren't, and although Shakespeare's plays were originally written for all-male companies, this was normal to a Jacobean audience and not unusual as it is to us. Here the female characters are played with subtlety and dignity, and while the novelty of it may initially distract from the plot, it is easy to very quickly accept them just as well-played characters.

Hall's production gives a very clear reading of the play, delivered with plenty of pace by a committed ensemble. The part that stands out as not really fitting with the rest is the arrival in Bohemia, which is staged as a mini-Glastonbury with actors singing and playing instruments. While the idea can be justified by the text, it seems that a little too much fun was had adding songs, asides and contemporary references and the wonderful clarity of words and plot achieved elsewhere suffers as a result.

The element of this that works the best is turning the thief Autolycus into an old rocker in leather trousers and a huge fur coat, played superbly by Tony Bell, who could be based on any one of a number of drink- and drug-addled former rock stars of the 60s and 70s.

There are more great performances from Robert Hands in the demanding role of Leontes and Richard Dempsey as his wronged Queen Hermione and from Nicholas Asbury as a laid-back and likeable Polixenes and Vince Leigh as Hermione's principal defender Paulina. There are also a couple of lovely comic performances from John Dougall and Karl Davies as the old shepherd who finds the baby and his son.

Propeller has produced an entertaining Winter's Tale that is accessible through the clarity of its speech and storytelling and the intelligence of its editing and direction rather than through any attempts to "dumb it down". Although I have reservations about the rock festival, those scenes produced lots of laughs from the press night audience and were played very well, demonstrating the versatility of an excellent ensemble cast.

Reviewer: David Chadderton