By William Shakespeare
Propeller (U.K.); Directed by Edward Hall
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | March 1-4
English all-male shakespeare company Propeller have, over the past 15 years, cultivated a reputation for fast-paced high-energy performances which are both respectfully adherent to the text and rigorously modern in their aesthetic. This year, Propeller brought us a double act of Henry V and The Winter’s Tale.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Winter’s Tale is a tragicomedy framed by the sexual jealousy, consequent fall, subsequent repentance, and ultimate restoration of Leonties, King of Sicilia.
After witnessing the masculinity of Henry V the night before, I was concerned that the more feminine elements of A Winter’s Tale would be reduced, as Shakespearean women often are when played by men; to camp pantomime; men in falsetto drag. Such concern proved to be unfounded. The performances of Richard Dempsey (Hermione), Vince Leigh (Paulina) and Ben Allen (Perdita) were remarkable. They rendered insignificant the unwomanly manner of their natural physicality. This proved most during the trial of Hermione, during which the beleaguered Queen appeared in the blood-soaked rags of an uncivil birth. Several times during the show, I wondered if such artful transformation had captured the essence of the play, as it was originally performed by the (all male) The King’s Men in Whitehall’s Banqueting House.
The strong leads were well supported by the smaller parts. The standout was Tony Bell’s characterisation of Autolycus, a roguish confidence man—played as an aged rocker somewhere between Keith Richards and Iggy Pop and backed a flock of singing sheep: “take it away saxophone sheep”. Bell’s Autolycus was the comic highlight of the production, including an adapted version of ‘All the single ladies’ with decidedly less booty shaking than the original.
The futuristic landscape of each State under Michael Pavelka’s design evoked the minds of the characters within them. Sicilia’s sickly remorse is set within a candle-lit cell of funereal austerity, populated by sparse ornament and grey-suited courtiers under a seemingly perpetual night but inconstant moon. Bright agricultural Bohemia, by contrast, is filled with light, noise and sartorial freedom.
The soundscapes were inventive and technically impressive, especially given that they were (at least at times) entirely acoustic. Glass rims were used to generate an angelic ambiance to lift sombre scenes into the ethereal.
The play, written in the twilight of Shakespeare’s career, is unusual in rhythm. Much of the first half is gothic drama while the second half is largely romantic—it’s more like two interwoven narratives than one really. Despite Leonties’s absence for about an hour, upon re-emergence his remorse is entirely believable. It is this remorse and the infectious sense of deserved restoration that makes Hermione’s reincarnation in the statue scene so moving—it’s a hard-hearted man who can endure “she’s warm” without a quivering eye.
But of all the marks of detail, my favourite touch was the presence of Mamillius (Ben Allen), appearing seemingly as the ghostly conscience of Leonties at times throughout the play and, in the final moment, articulating through the extinguishment of a candle flame held by Leonties, perhaps the conclusion of his repentance—his ultimate restoration.
Propeller’s reputation for energy and pace is well-deserved, with the transitions happening at furious speed and no time allowed for disinterest to arrive. While Henry V was the stronger of the two productions, both shows were exceptional.