The TheatreguideLondon Review
The Winter's Tale
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2012
Shakespeare's late romance is a broken-backed play that starts in one mode, changes completely for the middle acts, and then returns to the original setting and tone, and it is not uncommon for a production to be more successful with one part of it than the other.
That's what happens in Edward Hall's version for Propeller.
The opening, a dark play about a man struck with an insane fit of jealousy that destroys everyone around him, is very powerful, and the return to that plot at the end is marred only by some clumsy staging. The middle section, a light romantic comedy that will eventually provide the resolution to the outer story, is a bit of a disaster.
Take a long nap in the middle of the evening, and you will see what's best about this Winter's Tale.
Edward Hall and his actors begin well, even meeting one of the play's biggest challenges, making Leontes' sudden and overpowering conviction that his wife has been unfaithful, make sense.
Robert Hands doesn't make it happen instantly, but takes the man through the painful stages of first getting the inkling of the idea and then talking himself into the very thoughts that are a torment to imagine. This isn't just believable, but sympathetic, since this Leontes is first and foremost a man in pain, and only secondarily an irrational avenger.
Propeller is an all-male company, and the actors, many of whom return year after year, have mastered the art and skill of playing women without a hint of camp. Richard Dempsey invests the unjustly accused queen Hermione with a mature dignity that leaves no doubt about her innocence while helping us see why the thought of losing her could drive her husband mad. And as Paulina, the queen's chief defender, Vince Leigh creates a powerful voice of moral outrage who is never unfeminine.
After this very strong start, the play jumps ahead sixteen years to find the baby Leontes ordered killed grown into a shepherd girl in love with exactly the right man to help the play resolve itself by the end.
The middle section is meant to be a romantic comedy, light and celebratory in tone, but here it is leaden, unfunny and dreary. Almost uniquely among Propeller actors, Ben Allen is unable to create a believable female character or to invest her with any lightness or charm, so the rom-com scenes all die.
Meanwhile director Hall and designer Michael Pavelka imagine a country fair to be a modern rock festival, and the translation just does not work. Turning Shakespeare's folk ballads into rock songs and his country lasses into Essex girls might be possible, but not this time.
The con man Autolycus is, I grant, one of Shakespeare's drearier clowns, but Tony Bell makes him so actively unpleasant that you can't wait for the character to get offstage.
Generally speaking, everyone is too visibly trying too hard to be jolly in this central section, and that visible work is, of course, the death of lightness and comedy.
Things pick up when they get serious again in the last act, with the strange sort of marriage-in-shared-grief between Leontes and Paulina movingly evoked. And then director Hall loses his touch again, just by staging the final scene so awkwardly that it is not at all clear exactly what is happening or what relationships are being established or re-established.
Of the two plays in Propeller's current season, the Henry V is much more successful, though there might be just barely enough in the frame scenes to this Winter's Tale to make it worth seeing.
Review - The Winter's Tale - Propeller at Hampstead Theatre 2012
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