In the midst of the Battle of the Lears series, it seems appropriate to review Propellor’s version of The Winter’s Tale. The Shakespeare’s company award winning director Edward Hall perfectly communicates Charles Marowitz’s belief that:
The modern director is the master of the subtext as surely as the author is of the text, and his dominion includes every nuance and allusion transmitted in each moment of the performance. He is not simply a person who imposes order upon artistic subordinates in order to express a writer’s meaning, but someone who challenges the assumptions of a work of art and uses mise-en-scène actively to pit his beliefs against those of the play. Without that confrontation, that sense of challenge, true direction cannot take place, for unless the author’s work is engaged on an intellectual level equal to his own, the play is merely transplanted from one medium to another – a process which contradicts the definition of the word ‘perform’ – which means to ‘carry on to the finish’, to ‘accomplish’, to fulfil the cycle of creativity begun by the author. (Marowitz 3)
Before the performance begins, Hall challenges the audience by directing an all male, and might I add adult, company. Propellor’s all male cast may be fulfilling ‘the cycle of creativity begun by the author’ by inviting a comparison to the Jacobean theatre company, The King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s men), who performed The Winter’s Tale in Whitehall’s Banqueting House in 1612-13. The play was one of fourteen celebrating the wedding of King James I’s daughter Elizabeth to Prince Frederick the Elector Palatine (Orgel 80). Although Shakespeare’s theatre company used boys in the female leads, Propellor remind an audience familiar with actresses that Shakespeare actually wrote his female roles for actors. Therefore, the all male cast is both authentically Shakespearean and creatively postmodern through its transvestitism. In other words, Propellor demonstrate ‘what it means to act like a woman’ (Rackin 94). Perhaps one definition in which Propellor excel is empathizing with the woman on stage, rather than just seeing the actor.
The Winter’s Tale may be labelled as a tragicomedy, or more appropriately tragi-comedy, a generic mark that director Edward Hall takes to its extremes. The first half of the play is a gothic tale focusing on Leontes’, chillingly played by Robert Hands, decline into jealous madness. The play’s thematic preoccupation with time is brilliantly addressed by the projection of a full moon ‘the watery star’ (I.ii, line 1) on to the back of the stage, which is slowly eclipsed until being completely blacked out at the interval. As Mamillius, Ben Allen maintains a haunting presence as he wanders on and off different parts of the stage, even appearing as a silent presence on the balcony, dressed in his pyjamas.
One problem with The Winter’s Tale is its infamous stage direction ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ (III.iii), a tragicomic moment in itself. Propellor exploit the audience’s familiarity with the episode to shocking effect, when the bear rushes on stage an act too early. It turns out to be Mamillius in a bear skin having puerile fun, but the uncanny moment is disorientating. When it is time for the beast’s proper appearance, an anticipation that has already been preempted, the actual bear that devours Antigonus is Mamillius’s stuffed toy much to the audience’s joy and relief.
However, I was totally unprepared for the play’s second half. After the interval, the audience return refreshed to discover that the stage, for its pastoral setting sixteen years after the previous events, has been taken over by a band called ‘The Bleatles’ (members of Propellor play all the instruments). Autolycus, wonderfully played by Tony Bell, is the Iggy Popesque lead singer who struts about the stage bearing his hairy masculine chest. In fact, the whole thing is a riotous parody of the Glastonbury Festival replete with singing sheep. Also noteworthy is Karl Davies’s naturally comic performance as the Clown and Richard Dempsey as a rather alluring Dorcas.
The Winter’s Tale as performed by Propellor is excellent entertainment that remains faithful to the text, but is imaginative enough to build on Shakespeare’s creativity; much like the playwright’s reworking of Robert Greene’s prose fiction Pandosto(1588). Director Edward Hall’s final surprise is to add a coda to The Winter’s Tale. Mamillius, presumably his ghost, approaches an eager Leontes who holds before him a candle that the child blows out plunging the stage into darkness. Maybe Hall’s message is that Shakespeare is dead, and his plays should never be the same again.
Marowitz, Charles. Recycling Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Orgel, Stephen. Introduction. The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 1-83.
Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Shakespeare, William.The Winter’s Tale.1623. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.