Karl Davies as the young shepherd, Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa, Tony Bell as Autolycus and Richard Dempsey as Dorcas. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.
The production of The Winter’s Tale which Propeller Theatre Company are touring is filled with life and energy, visually beautiful, tightly controlled and at the same time full of expression and daring. This is a strange mixture but one which works well for a play which spreads over two distinct worlds. It takes a very skilled director and a very talented company to take a delicate and unusual play by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake without doing it serious harm but that is exactly what Propeller has done. There is huge fun to be had, but at any point the production is able to pull back, change the mood, and give you the pathos and quiet melancholy which the play needs. Propeller is an ensemble company of actors who work together a lot and know each other well and it shows.
Robert Hands as Leontes and Vince Leigh as Paulina. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.
The biggest problem in any production of The Winter’s Tale is making sense of Leonte’s utterly senseless jealousy. Of course irrational jealousy exists, we all know that, but in order to really feel the power and redemption in Leonte’s hard won wisdom at the end of the play we need to be shown that he is more than a deeply headstrong and blinkered, ultimately unlikable man. This was the first production that I have seen where I sat there genuinely moved and glad for him at the end of the play, knowing that his suffering was over and, against all the odds, he had the happy ending which he didn’t deserve. This is down to Robert Hands, who gives a great performance as Leontes, understated and truthful. Leonte’s language is vicious and extreme enough and it doesn’t need to be overdone. He truly is “a feather for every wind that blows”, as much of a mystery to himself as he is to everybody around him. It is also a tribute to the skill of Nicholas Asbury, who gives a finely judged performance as Polixenes which allows us to see exactly why Leontes might be so terribly mistaken, even though we can clearly see that there is no infidelity going on. This understanding carries us though to the enlightenment and reconciliation at the end of the play and makes it very moving.
Richard Dempsey as Hermione. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.
There is some very delicate playing from Richard Dempsey as Hermione, a willowy, brutally treated figure who has great dignity and poise. This is a very difficult task for a male actor to find those qualities as a woman given that there is no humour to hide behind. It has to be right and it is. The appearance of Hermione as the statue at the end of the play is achieved by a breathtakingly simple piece of magical misdirection from the whole company and nothing else. Beautifully done. It is particularly impressive that he could also tear his way through the scenes in Arcadia as Dorcas, along with Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa. The two of them have an absolute ball together, the scenes are set at a summer rock festival, and they are dressed to kill singing and dancing up a storm along with Tony Bell’s slightly dangerous faded rock star Autolycus, able to raise a laugh with a single word. Completely delightful.
Karl Davies as Young Shepherd and John Dougall as Old Shepherd. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.
It is not often that an audience gets to see two completely different aspects of what an actor can do within a single production and this is one of the joys of an ensemble like Propeller. It reminded me of the great days of the English Shakespeare Company and you won’t get higher praise from me than that. There was even a perfect part for one of the mainstays of that company, John Dougall, who played the old shepherd, a nice mix of comedy and pathos, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him there. The character of Paulina fared less well, in spite of a controlled and dignified performance from Vince Leigh. It is a great part and I think perhaps that there is a particular kind of female strength and authority about Paulina that may be very hard for any male actor to find without showing too much of their own natural male strength and unbalancing the performance. The doubling of Mamillius and Perdita is very clever. After the death of Mamillius we see the rest of the play, in a sense, through his eyes and Ben Allen gives us two charming and delicate performances.
The set for the Sicilian court scenes is wistful and elegant, shining polished steel walls lit by candles on long thin floor stands, watched by a giant silver moon, and the costumes are stylish and well judged. This is vital, especially for the cross dressing roles in an all male cast, and Michael Pavelka has done an excellent job.
I came away from this production in awe of a company who are able to really get to the heart of what theatre is about. They are led by a wonderfully talented director in Edward Hall who understands how Shakespeare works and how to gather a group of actors and weld them together into a company with the talent to take risks and get away with it in order to shine a new light on plays which have more in them than you would ever believe. The plays can take it- so long as it is done with respect and a sure footed sense of what works and what doesn’t. Propeller has built a body of work that demands respect now and long may they continue.
And finally- I just loved the farting sheep. Baaaa!