Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Winter's Tale - Shakespeare's Globe 2008

The Winter's Tale
Shakespeare's Globe Touring, Hertfordshire, UK.

In 2007, after a 400 year break, the Globe resurrected its tradition of touring with plays, taking its production of Romeo and Juliet to castles, festivals, parks and town squares across the country. This year the Globe is touring two plays to different locations: a reinvented Romeo and Juliet and The Winter's Tale.

Directed by John Dove, and with a company of just ten players (including two children), this is a tightly constructed production, with much doubling up of parts, quick costume changes, and a bare minimum of props and scenery. It is a slightly pared down version of The Winter's Tale, with certain scenes, as well as text, edited out, but it fares no less well for this. Delightfully, and in pure Globe fashion, the players engage with the audience throughout: stepping around the clustered picnic blankets and folding chairs and greeting their audience at the start of the play, bantering with them and even hiding amongst them. The stage itself is kept simple: a huge silver disc with a blue background is all the decoration needed, and a simple central entrance allows the players on and off stage. A long thrust stage puts the action in the centre of the audience, and players use the space at the end of this, as well as the space behind the audience, to create a sense of movement and energy. Finding a place to sit at most outdoor touring theatre is pot luck, but at this show it was completely organised; people with blankets were put at the front, and people with chairs at the back, and everyone was found a spot from which they could watch the play in comfort.

Sasha Hails as Hermione, pale and slim apart from her pregnant stomach, is regal in every respect. Upright without being haughty, and controlled without being cold, she shows great warmth towards Polixenes, and at first takes it in her stride as Leontes berates her for her conduct, assuming it to be mere sport. She is well used to noise and games, as we see when Mamillius (variously played by Siofra and Grainne Hails) bounds about wearing a costume of furry arms, in a nod towards the later bear scene. Hails is convincingly pregnant in the way that she touches her bulging midriff, and yet retains a charming elegance in spite of her woes. When she is presented as a statue we can imagine that this is how she has survived all these years - withdrawn and frozen until reunited with her husband and her true position.

As Leontes, John Dougall gives a quite startling performance as a king who has suddenly lost his mind. Overbearing from the start, we see him reject his wife and then his son, raging at all around him. At the end we see a man who is remorseful and humbled, but also perhaps cured. Brendan Hughes as Polixenes - taller, beardless, more stylish - is perhaps more aesthetically pleasing beside Hermione, and works well as the focus of Leontes' fears. In contrast to Leontes, Dougall also plays the old Shepherd who finds the baby Perdita: a simple and good-hearted man who gets on with his work and lets fortune wash over him, for better or worse.

Fergal McElherron also plays two contrasting roles, those of Antigonus and Autolycus. Antigonus is steadfast in the face of Leontes' rage, trying his best to dissuade him from his intended course of action. When he takes baby Perdita and abandons her to fate, it is with tenderness and hope. McElherron also manages to inject a goodly portion of comedy into this role, in discussion of his wife, Paulina, and in his final moments of life as the character. His famous final moment, with that immortal stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear is made the most of in this production. As he backs away from the babe, a huge bear arm, complete with claws, reaches around from backstage, pulls him against the backdrop and then drags him off - all in a mere moment. Enter the old Shepherd who begins his monologue, only to be interuppted by howls from backstage and the figure of Antigonus being pursued by a huge hairy bear, which chases him halfway around the audience and back again before he finally succumbs. Not every production could get away with something quite so cheesy, but by this company and in this setting it works a dream. McElherron later makes his reappearance as the rogue Autolycus, with geordie accent and wideboy attitude, who plays the lute as if it were a rock guitar and has to steal something from everyone. He is an absolute gem to watch and the audience loved him.

Niamh McCann as the adult Perdita positively glows. With her broad smile and sweet demeanour she radiates the innocence of youth and the joy of her love for sweetheart Florizel (Benjamin Askew). Camillo was one role that seemed to lose quite a lot of text, but was played admirably by Andrew Vincent. But for me, the outstanding performance was from Michael Benz in his dual roles of Paulina and Clown (listed in this production as Young Shepherd). Paulina is the fairy godmother, the good witch who saves the day with her magic, and Benz plays her like a dark Mary Poppins, matronly and cold, with black cloak and clipped tones, piercing eyes and an attitude that forbids defiance. A woman played by a man raised a few titters from an audience unfamiliar with such conventions, but when it became evident that Benz was playing her without even a touch of campness they accepted her for the strong character that she should be. As the Clown/Young Shepherd, Benz becomes a yokel, emphasising the simplicity and inherent comedy of the role but without the 'comic' baggage all too often brought to such a character.

The costuming of the production was kept fairly simple and was of mixed origin. The men wore modern combat trousers but with Elizabethan-look shirts and jackets. The women's dresses wouldn't look out of place at a dinner party, but the small frills around their necks were a nod to Shakespearean-style dress. Music was provided by the cast singing and playing instruments, and the play was opened and the interval announced by a small girl with a banner. These little touches enrich the fibre of the production and help to set apart this touring company from the many others around at this time of year, proving that the magic of the Globe can exist outside of the great wooden O.

 This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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