A Northern Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 9 February 2013

As we looked down at the sea, the sunlight sparkled on the gently rippling waves kissing the coast of luscious Sicily, all of which was a computer-generated projection on the back wall. High above the rocky outcrops of the shore, the royal palace presented a scene of relaxed luxury. On the real stage in front of the projections, revellers lay dozing after a feast, sprawled on elegant blankets and cushions.

Into this scene stepped Camillo (Daniel Betts) and Archidamus (David Shaw-Parker), the latter casting lascivious glances at a reclining woman and evidently much taken with the two buxom nurses who brought in Mamillius (1.1). That a guest from the Bohemian court should be taking such evident pleasure in the Sicilian women cleverly prefigured Leontes’ suspicions.

Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Polixenes (Adam Levy) awoke with a start and threw off the blanket under which they had slept (1.2). This established the close relationship between the royal friends. Hermione asked Polixenes to remain longer without any hint of flirtation, and Leontes’ generally affable demeanour meant that the slight snarl with which he accompanied “At my request he would not” came as a complete surprise.

Whatever was fermenting inside Leontes did not translate into any anger or aggression towards Hermione when he explained that the first time that she had spoken well was when agreeing to marry him. In thanks for this praise, Hermione dutifully kissed her husband referring to her first good deed that “for ever earned a royal husband”.

But then as Hermione referred to “the other for some while a friend”, she turned to kiss Polixenes and they both froze in a red spotlight. Polixenes smooch her passionately, prompting Leontes to exclaim to us “Too hot, too hot!” He turned to face them once more, continuing his description of their “paddling palms”, while Polixenes leant forward to listen at Hermione’s baby bump as if listening to the sound of his own child.

The red (for anger) colour of the light and the clearly fanciful actions of Polixenes hinted that what we were seeing was Leontes’ distorted imagination and not reality.

Leontes clutched Mamillius to him but still displayed no outward sign of distress to his wife and friend, with an ease that suggested years of such dissembling in matters of state.

He turned again and in red spotlight saw Hermione and Polixenes holding hands in a dance as they slipped away offstage. This led Leontes into his speech to the audience about the ubiquity of infidelity which he delivered in a calm and resigned manner.

His furious insistence to Camillo that Hermione had been unfaithful, with his lingering meditation on Polixenes’ apparent desire to “satisfy” Hermione’s entreaties, drew objections from the servant but ultimately unquestioning obedience. Camillo would poison Polixenes.

Polixenes heard Camillo’s warning about his fatal errand incredulously and offered the servant an opportunity to escape, which he took.

As Mamillius snuggled close to his mother to tell his winter’s tale downstage, further upstage near the raised platform, Leontes fulminated about Hermione’s betrayal before bursting in on them (2.1).

He accused her openly of adultery. His response to her denial was to punch her brutally on the belly with such force that, after some moments in shock, she fell to the ground clutching at her unborn child.

But despite the savagery of Leontes’ attack, Hermione acted protectively of him. He collapsed in anguish next to her and she smothered him with her arms, convinced that he was temporarily distracted. Her solicitous concern for her husband, even after he had assaulted her, was a very powerful statement about her character.

Leontes dealt with his attendants’ objections forcefully but with no sign of the excessive anger that had occasioned his punch. He went to lie down on the raised platform.

Determined

Paulina (Rakie Ayola) was in her own way as brisk, determined and business-like as Leontes. Her insistence that Hermione’s new-born daughter be brought to her was successful (2.2).

As each sequence had progressed the viewpoint of the sea on the back wall projection had descended ever closer to sea level. By now it was showing rocks bathed in cold rather than warm light with a hint of snow.

A projection showed Leontes’ nightmare, in which he plunged from a great height into the sea (2.3). He awoke from his sleep at the moment of impact and described how he had “nor night nor day no rest”.

Paulina approached with the baby in a bundle. The prop baby made very realistic gurgling and crying noises.

Though there was some comedy from Antigonus (Duncan Wisbey), who wittily pointed out that most husbands cannot silence their wives, and also turned to shush the baby whose cries he feared would further anger the already riled Leontes, the sequence was mostly characterised by Leontes’ fury at Paulina and the baby.

He had to be restrained from rushing at the precariously placed child. He had already effectively punched her on the head when in the womb and was now a further threat as she was lying on the ground before him.

Paulina’s determined handling of Leontes put him so much on the back foot, that when he turned to his attendants to say “Were I a tyrant, where were her life?” it was as if he was trying to overcome their scepticism.

With Paulina gone and only his men to deal with, Leontes wavered only slightly in his determination to see the child killed. But eventually he had Antigonus swear by placing his hand on a large sword to leave the child in a remote place.

Cleomenes (Joseph Pitcher) and Dion (Daniel Millar) appeared like Edwardian adventurers describing their return from the oracle at Delphos (3.1).

The court session opened with a number of shackled prisoners being ushered into the court and an executioner with a large sword standing upstage ready to execute the guilty (3.2).

After the charge was read, Hermione began her staccato defence. Stilted rather than the emotional, this speech was the only weak point in Tara Fitzgerald’s performance. Leontes’ constant contradictions led her to speak “Sir. You. Speak. A. Language. That. I. Understand. Not” word by word as if talking to someone slow of understanding.

Proving that she did not fear to die, she offered up her neck to the executioner who lined up the edge of his blade as onlookers cried “no!” in protest. But Hermione appealed to the oracle, a request which on being adjudicated just, caused the executioner to put his blade aside.

After swearing on the executioner’s sword, Cleomenes and Dion handed over the sealed scroll. There was great rejoicing at the news that Hermione and Camillo were innocent. But Leontes, branded a tyrant, came forward and scrutinised the scroll before weakly declaring that it contained no truth. At this time Hermione and Paulina found themselves staring at each other upstage in a strange close formation that perhaps foreshadowed their subsequent arrangement.

Tunic

That instant, one of the nurses brought in the neatly folded Tudor tunic that had belonged to Mamillius with the news that he had died. The queen fainted and was escorted away by Paulina while Leontes crouched and bewailed his mistake.

On her return to confront Leontes with the reality of his error, Paulina took a shawl from her shoulders and hit Leontes firmly with it, venting her frustration.

Leontes staggered upstage to the raised platform, which began to rise out of the ground, becoming a tall tower made of telescopic sections bearing him aloft. The dirty industrial look of the tower made it reminiscent of the factory chimneys that had so effectively marked the industrial era in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony the previous year.

With the back wall projection showing a ship tossed at sea, Antigonus and the Mariner (Phil Snowden) brought the baby ashore in a small wicker basket (3.3).

The ship split sending its crew plunging into the water, while Antigonus was chased away by a CGI bear that appeared to rear up out of the sea and walk across it. This was puzzling and lacked all credibility.

The entry of the Old Shepherd (David Shaw-Parker again)brought some welcome relief with his speech about the boiled brains of the young. He wandered up and down casting occasional glances at the wicker basket until finally stooping to examine it.

The Young Shepherd (Nick Holder) was a fat and bald comedy northerner. He described the shipwreck and bear attack, miming the bear chewing on Antigonus’ severed arm. At this point the interval came.

With no figure of Time to mark the passing of 16 years, the second half began with 4.2 as Polixenes and Camillo themselves mentioned the passage of 16 years (corrected from F1’s 15). They hatched their plan to visit Florizel (Gavin Fowler) in disguise.

Leontes was still just visible reclining on the top of the tower which now had a pipe curled round it rather like an industrial helter skelter.

The stage became filled with Edwardian seaside folk dozing on deck chairs and asleep on the ground in a mirror image of the scene of lazy splendour at the start of the performance, but this time against the backdrop of grimy industrial tower itself standing in front of a projection of a seaside pier.

Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus was one of the highlights of the production (4.3). His laconic dry-witted characterisation was instantly recognisable as a variation on the Grumio he had played the previous year at The Globe.

He sang as he strolled among the sleepy sunbathers, first stealing an ice-cream and then a drink before eyeing a sheet that a woman slept on. He tugged on the sheet but it would not move from under her. So he turned his back and broke wind, causing the woman to roll away and release the sheet. When she awoke he proceeded to sell the sheet back to her, turning to the audience with a grin to announce “My traffic is sheets”.

Off in the distance on the pier, the sound of a funfair hammer bell prompted Autolycus to say “A prize!”

The Young Shepherd woke up and simultaneously felt the chest and stroked the groin of the woman and man next to him in a grotesque and ribald parody of the awakening of the royal family at the start of the performance.

As he went over his list of intended purchases, behind him Autolycus quickly stole a long stick and a pair of (anachronistic) sunglasses and attracted the Young Shepherd’s attention while pretending to be blind. Autolycus picked the shepherd’s pocket as he manipulated his victim’s shoulder.

But the shepherd went to retrieve his now missing purse, and Autolycus realised he would discover the recent theft. So he instinctively took off his glasses and gestured wildly at the picked pocket insisting that he did not need the shepherd’s money. This miraculous restoration of Autolycus’ vision was a mistake that he hastily corrected but replacing his glasses and acting blind again. The shepherd gave a brief, quizzical look before dismissing the anomaly.

Satisfied with his work, Autolycus sang “Jog on, jog on…” as he exited.

Fortune

Our first look at Florizel and Perdita (Emma Noakes) showed the young woman to have completely assimilated the northern accent of her adoptive family while the young man’s accent betrayed his noble birth. The two shepherds meanwhile were very finely dressed, the result of the small fortune they had found alongside baby Perdita.

As people gathered for the fair, Polixenes and Camillo entered in their disguises, which were neither extravagant nor comic, but standard Edwardian gentlemen’s apparel. The Old Shepherd had to force Perdita forward to greet the new arrivals.

Florizel and Perdita began to dance and both froze in position as Florizel lifted Perdita aloft, allowing Polixenes and Camillo to make extensive praise of her. At this instant she was elevated both physically and in terms of renown.

This action freeze and associated comment was a positive version of Leontes red-mist vision of Hermione and Polixenes in the first half. The jealous anger of the former now contrasted with the generous affection of the latter.

Mopsa (Charlotte Mills) and Dorcas (Sally Bankes) were two plain low-class women who fought over the Young Shepherd in a comical.

Autolycus arrived at the fair disguised in a turban and pantaloons, which made him unrecognisable to the shepherd he had recently robbed. He carried in a tall, narrow funfair tent bearing the name of Elias the seer or a fortune teller.

Further dispute between Mopsa and Dorcas caused the Young Shepherd to ask “Will they wear their fannies where they should bear their faces?” i.e. changed from the original “plackets”.

Autolycus’ exited to sell some of his wares and was followed by an accordionist. He stopped and asked him “Can I help you?” and beckoned to him to follow as he left to accompany the shepherd and his girls.

The dance of the twelve Satyrs was a northern clog morris dance that was very enjoyable to watch, unlike many attempts at staging this particular sequence.

Polixenes began a closer interrogation of Florizel, who made a veiled boast of his impending inheritance “one being dead”, and thus increased his father’s ire.

Polixenes rushed round the back of the helter skelter tower and made a grand entrance out of the lower end of the pipe, in his shirtsleeves and smeared with dirt, to reveal his true identity to his son and threaten the Old Shepherd and Perdita.

Spying an opportunity to return home, Camillo advised Florizel and Perdita to flee to Sicily.

Autolycus returned with his swag, which prompted Camillo to propose an exchange of clothes to provide Florizel and Perdita with disguises. They went into his tent to swap garments, but Autolycus had to send the accordionist out first, telling him “Get your own tent”, at which point he slouched away dejectedly.

Florizel took Autolycus’ shirt while Perdita had his oversize pantaloons, while in exchange Autolycus received a fine, long white coat.

This set him up nicely to trick the two shepherds, who were worried by their connection with the disgraced Perdita, into thinking he was a courtier. Addressing the “rustics”, he spoke as finely as he could while emphasising he had “the air of the court” by adopting a series of ridiculous stances, like an athlete warming up by bending at one knee.

His change from “fardel” to “box” was spoken as a deliberate simplification for the simple shepherds.

Autolycus enjoyed his protracted description of the fate awaiting the Young Shepherd, pausing after each punishment to continue with a repetitive “then”. Each continuation of “then” caused the two shepherds equal alarm, so much so that the Young Shepherd greeted the final one by swearing under his breath.

He escorted them to the ship on which Florizel and company were getting ready to sail to Sicily.

Tower

Marking the shift of scene back to Sicily, the tower rotated to reveal it had no back, displaying a network of stairs leading from the ground to the top where Leontes still lay after 16 years (5.1).

Paulina, Cleomenes and Dion gathered at its base, with Cleomenes knocking on the door to summon Leontes from his prison.

This striking staging meant that both Leontes and Hermione had spent the same period of time in seclusion from the rest of the world.

He descended to ground level wrapped in a red blanket, the same colour as the rage of his jealous, angry visions of Hermione’s supposed infidelity.

Leontes’ sad ruminations turned to something approaching happiness when Florizel and his princess arrived.

The prince was confident in his explanation of his presence, despite hesitating when he claimed that Perdita “came from Libya”. Perdita was not required to speak, otherwise her distinctive accent would have instantly revealed that she was not Libyan.

The second messenger’s news of the arrival of Polixenes and the truth of young people’s flight brought revelation upon revelation with Leontes promising to help the would-be marrieds.

The joyous offstage reunions were related by two inebriated gentlemen, one still holding the champagne bottle and glasses that had attended the impromptu celebrations (5.2).

Autolycus listened keenly to these accounts before humbling himself by kneeling before the two shepherds, whose fine clothes were now decorated with jewels. The previously bald Young Shepherd was also sporting a fine blond wig.

But despite his apparent contrition, Autolycus could not resist pick-pocketing from them once more, going so far as to steal the Young Shepherd’s wig.

Paulina gathered the spectators for the viewing of the statue of Hermione. A white gauze tent was brought on, its structure and design very (and possibly deliberately) similar to Autolycus’ fairground tent, except for its brilliant pure whiteness (5.3).

The curtain was drawn back to reveal Hermione dressed in white like a classical statue, holding a large goblet in front of her with both hands. This pose was easy to hold completely still for the required time.

Leontes was immediately moved to approach the figure, as was Perdita who despite her supposed innate breeding, impulsively lunged forward and had to be restrained by Paulina.

There was some tittering from the audience when Leontes noticed the wrinkles on Hermione’s face, which Paulina excused as the artistic licence of the sculptor.

Hermione’s awakening saw her suddenly flash her eyes open as if after a long sleep. She gazed around as if only now aware of the people around her. This created the impression that she had really been under some hypnotic effect and was not simply playing along with Paulina’s elaborate ruse.

She stood still, stiffly posed, and extended her hand towards Leontes, who took it and was soon embracing his long-lost wife. She similarly greeted Perdita.

The performance ended with a dance that resembled the one that had been the occasion of Leontes’ original jealous anger. The extended hand gesture in the dance was emphasised to remind us of Hermione’s greeting to Leontes when she revived.

Conclusions

It was difficult not be affected by Leontes’ brutal attack on Hermione, the savagery of which was counterbalanced by Pierce Quigley’s outstandingly funny Autolycus.

The set design did more than create great visual impact: by creating an isolated retreat for Leontes’ sixteen years of solitude, it facilitated a new angle on the story.

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The Winter’s Tale – Globe to Globe

The Winter’s Tale, The Globe, 24 May 2012

Renegade Theatre’s Yoruba reworking of Shakespeare’s late play was full of surprises. The first surprise was obvious from the very beginning of the performance. The second surprise was kept until the very end.

Although ostensibly set within Yoruba mythology, with Leontes named Sango, the spirit of thunder and war, and Polixenes cast as Ogun, the spirit of iron, much of the play looked like the standard version with no supernatural powers attributed to the characters.

This production began at the play’s midpoint. The figure of Time (Motunrayo Orobiyi) stood on the Globe balcony and explained the action taking place on the stage below as Antigonus set sail for Bohemia cradling the newborn baby Perdita.

The ship was represented by actors with paddles. After depositing the baby and a bag containing the gold and explanatory letter, Antigonus was killed by robbers rather than being attacked by a bear.

The Young Shepherd (Adisa Moruf Adeyemi) warily examined the bag, eventually discovering its rich contents. He and his father the Old Shepherd (Amos Oluronbi Olutokun) took the bag and baby into safekeeping.

Time announced the passing of fifteen years after which we were introduced to Polixenes (Olarotimi Fakunle). He was out hunting with his men in a striking blue outfit. They carried a whole dead deer on stage and danced in front of it with their muskets. Polixenes and Camillo (Olasunkanmi Adebayo) decided to investigate what Florizel was up to.

Autolycus (Adekunle Smart Adejumo) was female: yet another of the many female trickster characters that have cropped up in Globe to Globe productions. She posed as a robbery victim to trick the young shepherd. As he helped her to her feet she reached into his back pocket and stole his purse. But on examining it she found that it contained only scraps of paper. This was comical reversal of fortune that explained Autolycus’s subsequent behaviour towards the young man and his father.

Perdita (Oluwatoyin Alli-Hakeem) in her green fake fur and Florizel (Joshua Ademola Alabi) made a nice couple. Florizel’s disguise was not perfect, however, as his hat bore a distinct crown motif that alluded to his true princely status. Perdita brought fruit for the festival and danced alluringly for Florizel.

They were soon being spied on by Camillo and Polixenes, who was disguised under a huge coat. Some groundlings were invited on stage to take part in the festival dancing. Big colourful masquerade giants, large tubes of cloth with a person at the bottom, danced on stage and occasionally bent over so that most of the tall tower was almost parallel with the ground. Autolycus was invited to take part in the festivities as a singer.

Polixenes anger at his son showed itself when he knocked Florizel’s hand away from Perdita and revealed that he had a gun under his coat, which he pointed at Florizel’s neck. His fury at the Shepherd saw Polixenes pick him up and almost throw him off the stage into the yard. The terrified servants showed their obedience by lying prone on the ground.

At Camillo’s suggestion Perdita and Florizel decided to flee Bohemia. They asked him how he had come to be in Bohemia in the first place, and at this point the action reverted in flashback to the beginning of the play.

In contrast to the blue colour scheme of Polixenes’ Bohemia, Leontes’ court in Sicily was themed in red. The King carried a short battle axe and fly-whisk that indicated his regal status. The initial dialogue was punctuated by two dances: one established the intimate relationship between Leontes (Olawale Adebayo) and Hermione (Kehinde Bankole) and then a second, more restrained one, indicated the close friendship between Leontes and Polixenes.

Dance was again used when Hermione, at her husband’s insistence, tried to convince Polixenes to prolong his stay with them. She danced modestly to please Polixenes and all was going well until Polixenes picked her up and carried her, a degree of familiarity that caused Leontes to look concerned.

Camillo had to endure Leontes putting his axe to his neck when angrily asserting Hermione’s unfaithfulness and ordering him to poison Polixenes. Then when Camillo explained to Polixenes why Leontes was so irate at him, the Bohemian put his gun at Camillo’s neck in annoyance at being so traduced.

Mamillius (Joshua Ademola Alabi again) danced as he began to recount his tale to his mother, shortly before Leontes stormed in and sent her to prison. Yet again the attendants lay prone on the ground in face of the King’s fury.

Paulina (Idiat Abisola Sobande), distinctive in her white bead headdress, brought Hermione’s newborn baby to Leontes and placed her on the ground. In the ensuing argument Leontes went to stamp on the infant, but Antigonus threw himself over the child so that the King’s foot made contact with his hunched back instead.

Hermione was brought in for trial wearing hand shackles. Her forceful protestations of innocence saw her throw off the shackles in protest. Instead of an oracle, a diviner cast a cowry shell necklace and interpreted the shape in took on landing to proclaim her innocence.

Hermione fainted on hearing of Mamillius’ death, and Leontes bowed his head in grief.

With Camillo’s flashback story told, the production took us forward in time to the coast where Florizel and Perdita were about to flee. At this point the interval came, but only after a long pause, as the cast had not realised that an interval had been scheduled. It took some time for the performance to be brought to its official pause.

The second half began at Leontes’ palace with the King, Paulina and two courtiers sat on a row of chairs. Leontes look suitably miserable until the arrival of Florizel and Perdita. News soon came of the arrival of Polixenes.

Leontes and his former friend faced off with battle axe and gun, but despite their initial grimaces they just bumped chests together and embraced like brothers. This reconciliation produced cheers from the audience.

Paulina noticed that Perdita had the same mark on her neck as Hermione and the action more or less froze as she spent a long time pointing this out.

The figure of Time narrated the subsequent reunion between Leontes and Perdita. We saw the shepherds rewarded with beads, using their new status to lord it over poor Autolycus and mocking his previous self-aggrandisement.

As the performance moved into its decisive final scene, a veiled figure was carried in and placed in position on a plinth. Hermione adopted a very realistic statue pose with her hand above her head. Paulina removed the veil from Hermione and an extremely moved Perdita tried to hug the statue, while Leontes also tried to touch it before being restrained.

Paulina chanted to make the statue come alive. In a moment of pure theatrical magic, the actress waited until a tear began to trickle down her face before she made her first movement and stepped down from the plinth. The tear drop and step appeared to be the result of the same instantaneous reanimation.

Hermione approached Perdita and greeted her warmly. Meanwhile Leontes ran around the stage in sheer joy facing away from the reunited mother and daughter.

The production delivered its final surprise. Just as Leontes turned round to face his wife, Hermione skipped back onto the plinth and turned to stone once again.

The look of dismay on Leontes matched the gasps of surprise from those in the audience familiar with the standard version of the play.

Paulina explained that Hermione had now been transformed into Oya, the spirit of the winds. This was the only point at which the mythological overlay to the play had any impact on the observed action. Oya is associated in Yoruba mythology with sudden change, which fitted neatly with her surprising reversal back into stone.

The production finished with a dance during which Autolycus, true to her trickster thief persona, tried to steal Leontes’ axe but could not lift it as it was too heavy.

The reordering of the scenes combined with the surprise ending that saw Hermione revert back to being a statue made this a striking production.

The joy of Hermione’s reunion with Perdita followed swiftly by the dismay of Leontes’ final and irrevocable loss of his wife made this even more of a tragicomedy than the standard version.

The audience was left perplexed as to whether they should feel happy or sad as the production ended with this unexpected twist in the winter’s tail. Both emotions were aroused in quick succession creating a collision between the two.

Mamillius’ tale

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.

Smile

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.

Horror

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.

Interval

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.

Hiya!

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.

Stick

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.

Conclusions

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.

Breaking news: Boris Johnson to annex Epidamnum

Richard III/The Comedy of Errors, Hampstead Theatre, 25/29 June 2011

Propeller’s double-bill of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors looked much better in the bigger space of the Hampstead Theatre than they had done on the more cramped stage of the Watermill near Newbury where I had first seen them.

The larger stage particularly suited Propeller’s expansive physical comedy, which was the highlight of both productions.

A bigger theatre also meant a bigger audience, and the laughs and squeals from the more substantial Hampstead crowds must have lifted the mood of the cast.

It was very enjoyable to watch Propeller’s bright colour palette being splashed across a much broader canvas.

Performing in the capital meant some specific London references were used in the productions. They managed to work in mentions of Boris Johnson, Camden Council and the Oyster card.

More crucially, the scene in Richard III where the crookback encountered the mayor and citizens of London saw the audience being addressed as if they were the crowd that Richard was trying to sway.

A second view of Propeller’s Comedy of Errors provided an insight into how some of the comic touches in the production had originated in a close reading of the text.

The police officer who arrested various of the characters wore leather trousers. Every time he took a step, a duck whistle sounded, creating the impression that his leather trousers were continuously squeaking.

This was derived from Dromio of Syracuse’s description of him in 4.2, which stated among other things that the officer was “in a case of leather”.

At every mention of the gold chain that Antipholus of Ephesus had commissioned, a percussion instrument made a ‘ding’ noise.

The textual origin of this lies in another line from Dromio of Syracuse in 4.3:

Dromio of Syracuse

Not on a band, but on a stronger thing;
A chain, a chain! Do you not hear it ring?

Adriana

What, the chain?

Dromio of Syracuse

No, no, the bell: ’tis time that I were gone:
It was two ere I left him, and now the clock
strikes one.

Adriana’s mistaken but understandable assumption that Dromio was referring to the chain ringing was incorporated into the production so that each reference to the chain was accompanied by a ringing sound.

On a general level, a repeat look at Propeller’s Richard III was more enjoyable than the first view. Familiarity with their gory, light-hearted take on the play meant that it no longer disappointed. It was possible to appreciate the production as another of their comedies rather than regret their failure to use the unique perspective provided by their all-male cast to explore the play seriously.

But on a positive note, another view of their Comedy of Errors brought home the intricate detail that had gone into the staging of the physical comedy.

The chaos of riotous onstage moments relies, ironically, on meticulous order and preplanning.

Another enjoyable feature of my second look at The Comedy of Errors was a proper chance to see and hear the cast singing a medley of eighties songs that formed the background to their charity collection.

The cast used up most of the interval in that production to raise money for charity, when they could have stayed backstage having a rest.

Propeller’s sell-out London run was followed by an announcement that their next season will include a reboot of their 2005 production of The Winter’s Tale and a new version of a play they have previously performed, Henry V.

Expect tickets for their return visit to the Hampstead to go fast.