Perth Festival: The Winter's Tale ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 24, 2012

Perth Festival: The Winter's Tale

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.


Cameron Woodhead said...

Egad! What a long recapitulation of the plot of a well-known Shakespeare play!

Do you really think The Winter's Tale a lesser play than Henry V? It's a very common opinion (in both senses) - Robin Usher said as much after seeing Propeller's production - but I'm not sure it stands serious scrutiny.

I'm assuming that your lack of a 'palpable sense of the possessive, overwhelming desire that drives such jealousy' is really a criticism of the actor playing Leontes, rather than something 'hard to put your finger on'?

Interesting that you loved Paulina. I couldn't disagree more, for the reasons given on my blog. What was it, exactly, about Leigh's performance you found attractive?

What about the notorious final scene? Did it work for you? Not?

Henry V was a less flawed production, but it's a much easier get for an all-male ensemble.

Alison Croggon said...

Hello Cameron - just about to head out into the Perth heat, but I might as well delay.

Re the relative merits of Henry V vs The Winter's Tale - well, you can argue the toss for hours on things like this to little or no purpose. Those maddening plot convolutions don't do much for me, and there's nothing like the beauty of The Tempest to compensate for its deus ex machina implausibilities. They're part of the price of much of Shakespeare's work, but hey: some you forgive more than others. Henry V has at least an exciting throughline.

And no, I don't mean to zero in on the performance of Leontes. What bugged me was a quality pertinent to the production as a whole, as I attempt to say in my last par, rather than to a single performance.

I liked Paulina very much indeed (I was curious to read your own response): it's a weird role, especially given that in the second half she is basically a finger of doom pointed at Leontes. I thought that Leigh invested her with a deal of androgynous dignity that seemed to me to be wholly apt. No concession to commonplace notions of the feminine there.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Paulina doesn't even appear in the second half until the end ... but we'll have to disagree on Leigh's performance. For me, Paulina is one of the most striking figures of female authority in all of Shakespeare, and she has to be very precisely rendered. I remember liking the Paulina in Eleventh Hour's production a lot a few years ago.

It's probably not useful to compare The Winter's Tale to either Henry V or The Tempest. I prefer dramatic ambition to clean throughlines, but each to their own. And really, there's a reason Shakespeare calls so often for the audience's indulgence in Henry V (beyond limited set design and the grubby populism of writing a play about a national hero): it's highly episodic, and the rhetoric masks some quite obvious, and politically conformist, exposition that isn't always deeply welded to the action.

To write a play with the horrific action of The Wild Duck, and give it a happy ending? Only Shakespeare could have done that. And when it works, that final scene in The Winter's Tale is amazing.

Alison Croggon said...

A long argument behind that on what's encompassed in "femininity", I expect... Your major argument seems to be that Paulina wasn't feminine enough.

As for the final scene, it was nicely enough done. I think I found it hard to care overmuch what happened without a real sense of what had been lost earlier in the play; without that resonance, it falls on this side of sentiment. And the production seemed so overdressed (and overstressed) after the purity of the performances I'd seen the night before.

Lee Lewis's production of Twelfth Night is an example of what I thought missing here: when Viola and Sebastian reunited in that production, it was with all the force of real feeling. (And, not uncoincidentally, the comedy in that production was outrageously funny). I think Shakespeare's endless comedic endings are difficult to do in contemporary theatre; it can too easily turn into just waiting for all the bows to be tied. Which is more or less what happened to me.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Oh I think you're being unfair. Twelfth Night is a textured comedy but it is definitely a comedy. The Winter's Tale is a late romance, and what makes it so hard to act is that all the 'real feeling' has to come from nowhere. Leontes disappears for half the play. It's like the difference between springboard diving (Twelfth Night) and platform diving (The Winter's Tale).

My argument about the performance of Paulina can't be reduced to a simple question of 'femininity'. The hardest roles to play across gender, in my estimation, are the ones where the character possesses qualities traditionally associated with the performer's own gender. It seems counterintuitive, but a man will have the most trouble playing a mannish woman, a woman playing an effeminate man. Getting that layering requires a serious level of histrionic nuance.

In consequence, I'd rate Paulina as probably the second most challenging role for a man to play in Shakespeare, after Cleopatra.

I do wonder if your opinion of Leigh's performance would've been different had you seen the Eleventh Hour production in 2006, which had a very strong portrayal of Paulina by a woman.

Cameron Woodhead said...

When did you last see The Winter's Tale performed (and read the play) by the way? Differences in taste aside, rehashing the plot for a third of the review seems like a tactic only someone relatively unfamiliar with the work would use. Some reviews are better, some worse: this one's on the latter end of the spectrum for you, from where I'm sitting.

Alison Croggon said...

It's been a long time since I read The Winter's Tale, and I've never seen it performed. So what? In any piece of theatre, what you see in front of you is what counts. I recounted some of the plot because it is so seldom performed here, and because its absurdity is part of what is notable about it. It's by no means the whole of my response to this production. The real question for me was its emotional truthfulness. Which is a difficult ask for any of Shakespeare's lesser plays, as you suggest. It's one of the truly difficult questions even in plays like Measure for Measure. I'm just not going to enter the question of femininity, which is just too vexed, and might require a whole book to discuss.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"In any piece of theatre, what you see in front of you is what counts."

Not at all. A theatre critic doesn't write about theatre. Theatre exists only in the moment and has vanished by the time she sits down to write her review. A critic writes about the effect of theatre on the mind, and a well-furnished mind is essential to a good review.

John Cleese once said that no one would know how to act Shakespeare if they hadn't seen his plays performed. You could usefully extend his dictum to criticism.

Any close inspection of The Winter's Tale should be able to tell it is self-evidently by the man who wrote King Lear. As a poet and critic I'm surprised you can't see it's a great play, though difficult in performance. At least your relative unfamiliarity with it makes your response understandable in human terms.

Burn the play if you like, Alison: 'tis a heretic that lights the fire.

Troubador said...

So Cameron, how are your other New Year's resolutions going?

Alison Croggon said...

Er... what?!? It's hardly spitting on the Bard's grave to think that The Winter's Tale is not quite Hamlet. Nor am I Savanarola for suggesting that some Elizabethan conventions are difficult to play in contemporary theatre. What is kinda weird is the idea that everything that dropped from Shakespeare's pen is by definition genius.

Thanks for the hints on How To Be A Good Critic. Checking the intellectual streets for hard waste collections right now.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Yes that's a weird idea Alison, and I'm not suggesting anything like Bardolatry. And don't be so touchy! It isn't personal. This isn't a good review, as you yourself doubtless know. Suck it up. Learn from it. Move on. Artists have to, so should we.

@Troubador. Oh God. My resolution. Back to writing about Matt Lutton's Elektra ... Over and out!

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron, I am by no means taking umbrage. I am, however, genuinely mystified by your non sequiturs. As ever, you have the right to think what you like; as do I. I am quite happy to stand by this review.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Mystified by my 'non-sequiturs' eh? My. How Socratic. What would they be, exactly?

Honestly, I don't have time for you to dance through the seven veils of your narcissism so you can appreciate a nuanced argument. If you don't think you have anything to learn from the discussion, I'd best leave it. I've learned a thing or two from you in my time. ;)

Anonymous said...

this exchange feels a little like rudd vs gillard... - anyway, just for the record, winter's tale is for me one of shakespeare's richest and more substantial offers - i'd never call it a well-made play but when a company rises to the occasion, it's volcanic - that's been my experience of it in the theatre, including recently at the vca in an awkward student production where i was shocked to find myself fighting back tears a few times during the evening - didn't laugh much though.. - from what i'm reading, sounds like propellor might not have risen very far - btw, i was in perth for elektra, and i saw brook's flute last year in lyon (outdoors in a roman theatre) - AND i also saw his dream in 1973, twice - russel.w, melbourne

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Russell - Cameron does seem to be confusing my critique of the production with critique of the play itself, which is then becoming an occasion for something perilously near trolling. My problems with the TWT's structure are, fwiw, pretty much identical with those I have with Measure for Measure, which I think is on the whole a play better read than staged: and those comments are very far from suggesting that either play is without merit. No tears in my watching of this rendition, but of course there are moments of linguistic gorgeousness.

Goosecap said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cameron Woodhead said...

Delete that post please, Alison. It's defamatory and in serious breach of your comments policy. My last comment was spiky but nowhere 'near trolling', and certainly not worse than some of the curry you've served me over the years.

My basic point was to ask for clarification of your unsubstantiated 'non sequiturs' remark. Needless to say, you haven't, because there weren't any.

I enjoy arguing about theatre, but your style of disputation when you're on the back foot is deliberately tendentious, vague and evasive, and yes I think it's a consequence of your vanity. Anyway, it is exasperating and dull and it happens far too often. Hence the resolution, which I shall now, again, endeavour to reinstate.

At least Russell W. has his head screwed on. Quite agree, Russell, that's my experience of the Winter's Tale too, and I'm deeply envious you saw Brook's Dream in '73. Alas, I wasn't yet born. Seeing his Flute makes up for it though.


Goosecap said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cameron Woodhead said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

God, what a disaster. Do I have to pick people up by the scruffs of their necks and bang their heads together?

Cameron, reading over this thread shows that you have busily demolished any high moral ground you want to stand on. The non sequiturs, if you hadn't clocked them, are your constant attempts to derail a difference of opinion about a production or a play into your opinion of my fitness to be a critic. No, differing with your august judgments does not a bad critic make. And I have in fact been quite polite in the face of quite some provocation.

If you hadn't been so rude yourself, I might have deleted Goosecap's first comment. I let yours on my narcissism stand, and so will let stand GC's comment on your vanity. Fair's fair. Sue if you like, but why you'd want to is anybody's guess. I am deleting Goosecap's following comment on grounds of incoherence as well as abusiveness. Maybe now the sandpit will be a little more orderly? Thanks.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, and I'm deleting Cameron's next comment too. If you want to keep fighting, do it on Cameron's blog.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Alison, it is not our difference of opinion of the production that was at the heart of the matter. It was our different estimation of the play, which I suggested was influenced by our relative degrees of knowledge of it, both textually and in performance.

I have never claimed you're unfit to be a critic, not here or anywhere else, nor would I. It's completely ridiculous of you to suggest I have or ever would.

And I do strongly suggest you remove all of Goosecap's abusive comments, or yes, I will sue you (not that it would get past the dispute resolution stage). Remove my comment about your narcissism too if it pisses you off ... though it is not defamatory in the slightest. I do have a law degree.

Rudeness is fine as part of spirited debate, but I'm heartily sick of abusive personal attacks, and you have done more than anyone else to encourage them against me -not least by retweeting derogatory remarks on Twitter.

I'm not remotely interested in the moral high ground, or being popular here. I'm interested in discussing art, and this pathetic sideshow isn't it.

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron, drop it. I do not "encourage" abusive personal attacks against you, and I'd like to know what "derogatory comments" I have tweeted about you - I can think of one light-hearted tease about a typo in a review. Perhaps you could look to the beam in your own eye on this one and consider that it's a tad unbecoming to be so forward in slashing at others and yet so sensitive for yourself.

Yes, I have formally studied defamation too. I am in fact a fully qualified journalist. For the sake of peace, I'll remove Goosecap's comment. Yours can stand, and others can make up their mind about your conduct.

This thread is now closed.