Being one of Shakespeare’s more unbalanced works – part comedy, part tragedy, part psychological drama and part magic realism – The Winter’s Tale can be a challenging play to stage but Edward Hall’s Propeller are not ones to back away from such a challenge.
Hall’s all-male company has steadily built a reputation as one of the most innovative interpreters of Shakespeare working today; their blood-soaked Richard III was one of the theatrical highlights of last year. Their production of The Winter’s Tale, first staged in 2005, is touring as a part of a double-bill with a new production of Henry V (although, sadly, this isn’t so in Sheffield which only gets the former), and is the type of boisterous and inventive production that Hall and company do so well.
One of the play’s main themes, the passage of time, is evoked before the lights even go down with a steady trickle of sand dripping down from the ceiling onto the stage. Ben Allen’s Mamillius walks on clutching a teddy bear before the stage becomes crowded with cigar-smoking, suit-wearing noblemen.
Very much a play of two halves, the first part of The Winter’s Tale is well handled by the company. The stage is dominated by a giant, reflective structure, designed by Michael Pavelka, and festooned with candles. Robert Hands makes for an engaging Leontes, a man driven mad by the unreasonable belief that his wife Hermione is having an affair with his childhood friend. Hall roots the play emotionally by focusing on young Mallimus, leading to a truly dramatic and touching moment where the boy watches his mother’s trial from the balcony, perfectly conveying his air of devastation. Richard Dempsey conveys a sense of dignity as Hermione, while Allen is unnervingly convincing as Mamillius; in a nice twist of casting, Allen also plays his own sister in the second half of the play, transforming into the grown Perdita residing in Bohemia.
It’s in this second half that Propeller’s inventiveness really comes into its own. Hall reimagines the sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia as Glastonbury during festival season, complete with tents, portaloos and a full band (with the punning title of The Bleatles). There are amusing musical references to Beyonce and Chumbawamba, and the whole sequence is spectacularly dominated by the brilliantly louche performance of Tony Bell as the petty criminal Autolycus, here re-imagined as an ageing rock star, complete with leather trousers.
Even the final, redemptive scene of Hermoine’s “statue” coming back to life is handled beautifully, and Hall lends an extra poignant touch right at the very end. It may not be the sheer sensory rollercoaster ride that was Propeller’s version of Richard III, but there are still many magical touches, such as Mamillius recounting the famous “exeunt, pursued by a bear” stage direction using puppets and – of course – his trusty teddy bear.