UK Shakespearean company Propeller is an odd beast. Under the artistic direction of Edward Hall, its mission is to refresh Shakespeare using physical theatre. With this goes an attempt to recreate the rough-house theatre of Elizabethan times: without claiming that Propeller is a theatrical version of those early music groups that play baroque scores using authentic instruments of the time, the company calls on some familiar tropes of the Elizabethan theatre, reworking them for a contemporary audience.
|From left: Gunnar Cauthery, Tony Bell and Richard Dempsey in The Winter's Tale. Photo: Manuel Harlan|
Hall takes a populist, irreverent approach to the plays, importing quotes from British popular culture into their productions, just as the 16th century playhouses had acrobats and jugglers to entertain the groundlings. As in Shakespeare's day, Propeller is an all-male troupe. This might in fact be the most interesting aspect of their work, as it promisingly highlights the playfulness of gender in Shakespeare's texts. Even the set design is a take on the classic Elizabethan stage: it's a bare playing space with a balcony back stage over doors leading to the tiring room, the whole capped by representations of the heavens - a full moon in the first half, stars in the second.
For the Perth Festival, the company brought out Henry V and The Winter's Tale, which are playing in repertoire. I wonder in retrospect if I made a mistake only choosing to see the latter; it is certainly the lesser play. The evening passed painlessly enough, and there are certainly things to admire, but I was curiously unengaged for most of it. It felt as if I were witnessing all the appearance of theatre with not much of the substance.
The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's more chaotically ahistorical mixes. It's a morality tale about sexual jealousy set in two kingdoms, Bohemia and Scillia. Leontes, the King of Scillia (Robert Hands) conceives a sudden irrational notion that his wife, the heavily pregnant Hermione (Richard Dempsey) has been sleeping with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Nicholas Asbury). Possessed by his suspicions, nothing will dissuade him of his conviction: denial only reinforces his paranoia.
Disaster ensues. He humiliates and degrades his faithful queen, who goes into labour and bears a daughter whom he refuses to recognise as his own, and then dies. Leontes sends his courtier Antigonus (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) to expose the newborn baby in the wilds, ensuring Antigonus' own death (he is eaten by a bear). Meanwhile, Leontes' son Mamillius (Ben Allen) kills himself. There's a bit part appearance by the Oracle at Delphi, who reveals with some unusually direct utterances that Leontes has been wrong all along, and the king falls into grief, despair and regret.
Part two picks up the story 16 years later, in Bohemia. Polixenes has a son Florizel (Finn Hanlon), who is in love with the mysteriously aristocratic shepherd maiden Perdita (a nice double by Ben Allen). Perdita is of course the missing princess, who has been picked up and raised by shepherds. This gives an excuse for jolly bucolic shenanigans as the shepherds celebrate a shearing festival. Polixenes goes among the commoners in disguise to find out what his son is up to, and has a major meltdown when he discovers that Florizel wants to marry a peasant. The young lovers flee to Scillia to escape his revenge and take refuge in Leontes' court. In the end, identities are revealed, forgiveness is distributed and everyone is satisfactorily sorted out into couples.
The production moves swiftly and fluidly from scene to scene, and has some nice touches; I especially like the presence of the young prince Mamillius, who presides over the action in his blue-striped pyjamas like some kind of benign narrator-spirit, and who ends the show by blowing out a candle, plunging the stage into final darkness. The performances I enjoyed most were Dempsey's Hermione and Vince Leigh's Paulina, which attained moments of real poignancy, and were played without the slightest touch of camp. Here the notion of gender as a performance, central to so much of Shakespeare's work, comes to the fore and begins to invest the production with some interesting complexities.
The comedy, mainly provided by the shepherds and the rogue Autolycus (Tony Bell), seldom hit the mark for me. It all seemed a bit naff, even quaintly old fashioned. After interval the light rises on a drumkit with "The Bleatles" written on it, signalling the emergence of a chorus of sheep on hands and knees in white fairisle jumpers, and lots of slick stage business parodying Glastonbury hippies. Maybe it felt just too eager to please: even Bell's bravura Iggy Pop impersonation (and let's face it, a half-naked rock star screaming about daffodils has a certain charm) lacked edge, that real raw thrill of sexual danger.
Maybe this begins to get near to the reason for my lack of connection, which mounted into mild boredom over the course of the evening. The play is, after all, about the terrible consequences of sexual jealousy, which drives a good man to destroy everyone who loves him. It's hard to put my finger on why, but I never felt the peril: there was no palpable sense of the possessive, overwhelming desire that drives such jealousy and, aside from Hermione's speeches, little of the real price of Leontes's betrayal of trust and its murderous violence. It was all safely contained in a lot of acting. Mostly harmless.
The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare, directed by Edward Hall. Propeller @ Perth Festival, His Majesty's Theatre, until February 25.
Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.