The Winter’s Tale, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, 30 March 2012
Before a single actor appeared, before a single word was spoken, Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale presented the audience with a cryptic puzzle whose solution formed the key to the entire production.
Framed within the standard Propeller scaffold, the set consisted of mirrored walls forming a luxurious interior surrounding a piano. A child’s cart stood downstage onto which a dusting of sand fell ominously from the flies. A full moon was projected at the back.
Wooden mannequins, Mamillius’ toys, dominated the stage like a miniature army of occupation, one even positioned atop the piano.
Mamillius (adult actor Ben Allen) entered and played centre stage with some other dolls. The main body of the cast appeared, accompanied by an eerie noise created by fingers playing on the rim of their brandy glasses.
They shared out selected lines from 1.1 to describe the beautiful friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, as the actors playing these two roles (Robert Hands and Nicholas Asbury) acted out their friendship.
Something strange happened during 1.2, in which the actor playing Leontes usually makes choices about when and how the first signs of his suspicion and anger are to be displayed to the audience.
Close scrutiny of Robert Hands revealed not a flicker of inner turmoil and not a twitch of mental conflict. Scanning him for traces of the usual emotions revealed not a single reflection of the transformation that normally takes Leontes from placid family man to avenging monster.
Leontes’ interior life is usually written on the outside, but here we were presented with a complete blank, accompanied by none of the usual gestures and inflections of voice.
Sometimes “Is he won yet?” marks the beginning of Leontes’ irritation at his wife’s overfamiliarity with Polixenes, but he was quite genial when saying these words.
The expectation of Leontes’ final eruption was made the more tense by the way that Hermione (Richard Dempsey) constantly clutched at her large baby bump, making her look very vulnerable.
It was not until Leontes’ definitive outburst “Too hot, too hot” that we had any indication of his state of mind. Leontes addressed these words to us as Hermione and Polixenes froze facing upstage, holding hands in midair behind him. The “paddling” of their hands was then made obvious.
This seemed to come from nowhere. With no advance notice of the impending outburst, Leontes became strangely absent from a narrative that traditionally centres on his character.
All this while, Mamillius looked on with a mixture of insouciance and suspicion.
Leontes’ “Sir Smile” soliloquy was just as underwhelming as the rest of his performance. And when Camillo used the suggestive word “satisfy” in connection with Hermione and Polixenes, Leontes’ repetition of the term lacked venom.
This Leontes was like someone who had been cheated out of a parking space rather than a man suspecting his wife of infidelity.
At the start of act two the moon changed from full to half, marking the passage of time and the encroaching darkness. Mamillius wrapped himself in a bear skin and briefly played at being scary, which was a knowing wink at the play’s other bear. The skin was taken from him and was placed on the ground as a rug.
Darkness fell over Mamillius as he whispered his story to his mother, and Leontes stood in spotlight downstage explaining how he had seen the metaphorical spider in the cup.
Hermione’s vulnerability in the faces of Leontes’ accusations was emphasised by her constant clutching at her unborn child. At one point Leontes grabbed hold of her and picked her up.
But there was still something weak and unconvincing about the way Leontes insisted to Antigonus that his accusations were true.
The first appearance of Paulina in 2.2, by a line of torches marking the entrance to the prison where Hermione had been detained, demonstrated one of the clever effects that can be achieved with an all-male cast.
Paulina was played by Vince Leigh, who, to put it mildly, is a big bloke. The character’s moral force was therefore given an immediate physical expression. This was rather like looking at an infographic in which the relative size of countries has been adjusted, not to represent surface area, but some other parameter such as energy consumption.
Leontes talked quickly and gabbled in his distraction as his sanity continued to deteriorate in 2.3. But it was at this point that some clarity began to emerge with regard to the overall structure of the production.
Everything Leontes did was observed by Mamillius. The king pondered what would happen if Hermione “were gone, given to the fire” and burnt a photo of his wife on one of the torches.
Mamillius was so disturbed by this that he sat on the floor with his knees clutched to his face and began rocking backwards and forwards. The servant’s description of Mamillius sickness was therefore de-emphasised because the audience could see him directly.
The prominence given to Mamillius right from the start could now be seen as something much more radical. Mamillius had in effect been given a fuller and more detailed characterisation than his father Leontes, to the extent that the production appeared to be about him rather than his more weakly drawn parent.
Leontes looked even weaker when Paulina, carrying baby Perdita, physically dominated him during their argument. Leontes question to Antigonus: “What, canst not rule her?” had an obvious answer in Paulina’s size, which also enabled her to scare off the attendants that tried to seize her.
Leontes changed his mind about letting the baby live with a repeated click of his fingers, which did nothing to enhance the horror of his decision.
The brief scene with Cleomenes and Dion was cut from the start of act three, as we got straight down to Hermione’s trial (3.2).
The moon projected on to the wall was now a crescent. A stenographer sat at a table stage right. An old-fashioned mic was positioned nearby and a chair for Leontes stood stage left.
The court descended into uproar when Leontes called for Hermione to be produced, with the stenographer and other officials vehemently protesting.
The reason for this soon became apparent. Hermione appeared from stage right in tattered clothes, her legs still stained with the blood she had shed giving birth.
Mamillius watched all this from above, but disappeared just before his death was announced.
Leontes sat and listened to Hermione’s defence. But this speech lacked true emotion. The male actor was concentrating so hard on trying to act like a defiant female that there was no room left for the vulnerability the speech required. Hermione looked too prim and stiff to be on the verge of welcoming death.
With her innocence declared by the oracle, Hermione collapsed on hearing of Mamillius’ death. The moon changed to a total eclipse signifying the darkest point in the story. A thunder clap sounded, prompting Leontes to say that Apollo was angry. He knelt and repented.
Leontes broke down, wailing tearfully on the ground. He recovered but could not bring himself to mention the “dead bodies of my queen and son”.
The stage went dark as the scene shifted to the coast of Bohemia (3.3). Mamillius played with a model ship, rocking it up and down to suggest Antigonus’ voyage. Hermione appeared behind Antigonus and touched his head as if transmitting a vision of her into his mind. She spoke her own words, taking them over from Antigonus.
After placing the baby and a mirrored box downstage right, Antigonus was chased away by Mamillius holding his small brown teddy bear. This was a funny reversal and backwards glance at his earlier play with a lifelike bearskin rug.
The appearance of the Old Shepherd (John Dougall) and his son (Karl Davies) marked the point at which Propeller came into their comedy element. While his father adlibbed and winked at the audience, the yokel Young Shepherd had trouble pronouncing the name Antigonus.
A beam of light shone from the box when it was opened accompanied by a shimmering sound effect.
Unlike their Henry V, there was no charity fund-raising singing at the interval. This was possibly due to the ageing make-up required for several of the characters.
The sheer fun of the Bohemia scenes in the second half was announced by presence of a drum kit bearing the name “The Bleatles”. As the performance restarted, the cast ambled on from the sides like a large music hall act getting ready to sing.
Ben Allen who had played Mamillius in the first half, now appeared as Time and orchestrated the others so that they moved their heads from side to side like a pendulum. This motion then speeded up to mark the accelerated passage of time. An hour glass centre stage was turned over.
With the entire cast onstage, characters introduced themselves when referenced by Time, with Florizel (Finn Hanlon) saying “Hi”. When Perdita was mentioned, Ben Allen changed clothes to become her and soon the others were singing “Isn’t she lovely?” to underline her beauty.
More comedy was extracted from the outwardly staid scene (4.2) between Polixenes and Camillo. They discussed Florizel’s recent antics, each trying to outdo the other by producing ever more surveillance photos from their sleeves like magicians.
The comic production of photos contrasted with the burning of Hermione’s photo by Leontes, underlying the difference in tone of this second half.
The explosion of light-hearted energy in the sheep-shearing scene (4.3) made it obvious that Propeller had invested the majority of its efforts into extracting as many laughs from it as possible.
Bare-chested under his fur coat, Tony Bell’s Autolycus bounded on stage and began to sing his opening song with the Bleatles backing him. He adlibbed some flirtatious remarks with a woman in second row (there were only two people in the front row) in a manner now familiar from other Propeller productions.
He moved to one side as the Young Shepherd entered with by his flock of sheep, composed of some of the cast in Arran jumpers and woolly hats grazing on all fours. The Young Shepherd asked himself how much of each commodity he required, and the sheep answered with the appropriate number of bleats. When he mentioned prunes, one of sheep broke wind and produced droppings, which fitted with his phrase “raisins of the sun”. Autolycus scared away the sheep by shouting “Mint sauce!”
Autolycus pretended to have been robbed and systematically stripped the Young Shepherd of all his money and then his clothes, item by item, donning the garments himself. The lad was left with a pair of pants, which Autolycus whipped off to leaving the shepherd in just a loin cloth. The Young Shepherd arrived in the next scene almost naked and spent the rest of it under a large coat with no trousers.
Needless to say the audience lapped all this up.
The set changed for 4.4 to represent a music festival with a tent positioned stage right. Mopsa (Gunnar Cauthery) and Dorcas (Richard Dempsey) sat stage left with Dorcas introducing herself with a loud “Hiya!”
The audience burst into laughter at the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo in outdated scout/guide uniforms. In particular, Chris Myles’ Camillo in his guide dress and greying moustache drew hoots from audience. The onstage crowd greeted them with a chorus of “Gin Gan Goolie”.
Florizel and Perdita spoke sweet words to each other, and Florizel even sang to Perdita at one point. They left the stage as the band played “I Feel Love” and Camillo called her “the queen of curds and cream”.
Mopsa and Dorcas argued and then came to blows until the Young Shepherd separated them. Autolycus emerged from his tent with a hat festooned with burning joss sticks. He began singing “Naughty, naughty, very naughty” identifying him as the character Ebeneezer Goode from the song of the same name by The Shamen. This was an interesting use of the word “naughty” which in context fitted with its early modern meaning of “worthless”.
Mopsa and Dorcas argued again, with Dorcas waving a condom at Mopsa to illustrate what she meant by “He hath promised you more than that”. Autolycus’ parcels of charge and ballads were CDs tied with string to his belt.
When explaining the story behind the ballad of the flying fish, Tony Bell appeared to get a word slightly wrong. He spoke of the “fortieth of April” instead of the “fourscore of April”. This could have been deliberate, but if it were a mistake it did not matter as the date was a pure fantastical invention, and any variation on it seems as perfectly apt as the original.
The atmosphere of misrule continued with the setting of one of the festival songs, sung by Mopsa and Dorcas, set to the tune of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”, complete with a dance routine.
After Polixenes broke up the impending match between Florizel and Perdita, the couple planned their escape with the help of Camillo.
Autolycus entered down the side of auditorium and chatted with the audience. He showed us all the purses he had stolen. As he took off his hat even more of them fell out onto the ground. He was discovered by others picking them up and feared being discovered.
More outrageous behaviour followed from Autolycus as he stood on table and lorded it over the two shepherds speaking in a posh accent, complete with interjected “yahs” to make him sound upper class. After his closing remarks, Autolycus sang “Jog on, jog on the seaside way”, which was a variation on the earlier “footpath way” song.
After this uproarious comic interlude the set rapidly changed back to the mirrored walls of Sicilia for the start of act five.
Four torches stood round a miniature monument to Hermione, the figure being another of Mamillius’ toys. Leontes was wheeled in accompanied by Paulina. The king was still grieving loudly. He cried “stars, stars”, which was later referenced by the projection of stars onto the back of the set.
In his extreme distress, Leontes was somehow more convincing at this point than he had been earlier in the play.
Leontes greeted the news of Florizel’s arrival with joy and rose from his wheelchair to walk with a stick. Florizel floundered as he tried to remember the backstory that Camillo had provided to disguise the real reason for their arrival.
The king perked up even more when he heard that Polixenes himself had landed on Sicilia. He threw his walking stick at his attendant and walked offstage unaided to meet his friend.
The rapid transition from wheelchair to walking stick to unaided motion hinted heavily that much of Leontes’ disability was psychosomatic.
The first reunions of 5.2 were acted out upstage as they were narrated downstage. Poor Autolycus thought he was going to see the statue of Hermione with the others, but the Gentleman shut the door on him, rubbing salt in the wound by saying “Who would be thence, that has the benefit of access?”
The newly gentle shepherds took a photo of themselves in their fine attire with a miniature camera. The Young Shepherd set his outfit off with a spangly brooch in the shape of a sheep.
Autolycus could not help himself and stole the Young Shepherd’s expensive new watch, which the young lad eventually recovered when asserting his higher social rank. The taming of Autolycus was made complete when the pair beckoned him to carry their designer boutique shopping bags.
The final scene (5.3) was handled very skilfully. Paulina escorted her curious visitors to the far left of the stage, which directed the audience’s attention to that side. Meanwhile Hermione snuck in among the rest of the party stage right and was suddenly revealed when Paulina turned about and pointed at her as the group surrounding Hermione withdrew.
Hermione stood facing towards the centre of the stage from its downstage right corner with her arms posed slightly awkwardly, bent at the elbows as if carrying an invisible parcel in front of her.
Leontes and the others crept towards her only to recoil in shock when Hermione suddenly turned to face them. This sudden gesture represented the step down from the plinth of traditional stagings.
The introductions and general joy felt immensely satisfying. But the production had a slight sting in the tail.
Ben Allen changed from Perdita back into Mamillius. In the final moments, Leontes stared at what he thought was a vision of his dead son, but Mamillius simply shook his head as if to deny the reality of his presence and blew out the sole candle lighting the stage, plunging it into darkness.
This final poignant moment was a clever touch that underlined the tragic aspect of the play, reminding us that for all the joy of finding Hermione and Perdita, there had been permanent loss.
Propeller’s main problem is that they seem most at home using their all-male cast USP to extract the maximum amount humour from any Shakespeare play they decide to stage. With a tragicomedy like The Winter’s Tale they have to ensure that sufficient darkness is created to achieve a proper balance of comedy and tragedy.
Their apparent solution was ingenious.
The treatment of Mamillius in this production went far beyond simply foregrounding the character. Instead, he was given a characterisation of arguably greater depth than that of his father Leontes, threading his way through the production to add a bitter taste to its sweet conclusion.