By Stephen Hargadon
A “sad tale’s best for winter”, says Hermione’s son Mamillius, and this production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale by Northern Broadsides opens in a suitably spartan, sombre space. White walls, white doors – a wintry, stately, somewhat forbidding setting. It looks like 1990s loft conversion, faintly industrial and clinical. The play opens with the projected image of a clock. The year is 1999. Midnight approaches, there is laughter and music, and soon the bells will ring for a new year and a new millennium. Mercifully – or perhaps regrettably – the play is not set in the Millennium Dome: it is a production free from heavy-handed attempts at political relevance. The recognisably modern if unspecified setting is not intrusive. If anything, the unfussy design serves to accentuate the curious and ominous affliction that takes hold so violently in Leontes’ mind. Director Conrad Nelson (who also plays Leontes) does not milk the text for spurious modern significance. The leading men are sharp-suited, as if heading to the office. But the plain bone-white backdrop gives the production a classical, even unearthly feel.
This is a strange play, a fairytale of sorts. The onset of Leontes’ jealousy is so sudden and grows so swiftly that it is difficult to comprehend, especially in terms of conventional realism. But it is all there in the poetry – the anger, the bubbling paranoia, the sickening, erratic rage: this is where the production succeeds. Shakespeare’s language, spoken in a range of northern accents, sounds fresh and sharp, convincing and direct. It reminds us how much a disservice is done to Shakespeare by fey RP chirpers in their tights and ruffles. We are swept along by the violence of the Leontes’ self-inflicted jealousy. It is a virus, a disease, an infection in Leontes’ mind.
The second half is full of robust, rustic fun and vibrant musical sketches. These celebratory interludes are impressive and highly enjoyable. There’s folk, country, jazz, swing. The modes of the feel-good musical are affectionately mocked. There is dancing and gentle mayhem, all excellently and cleverly choreographed. Saxophones glitter under the lights, guitars are plucked and slapped. The forbidding etiquette and conspiratorial tone of the court gives way to an extended pastoral shindig. In one lively scene, the shepherdesses Dorcas and Mopsa try to out-diva each other, grinding and gurning in the style of Beyonce or Rihanna. These boisterous passages, with the players decked out in hippy garb – love beads, frayed denim, tinted Lennon specs – seem to belong to an entirely different play. The dark courtly drama turns into a hoedown. This not to criticise the production. Such apparent disunities derive from strange structure of the play itself. Some critics view the play as an experiment. A statue comes to life, there is a bear on the loose, sixteen years are summed up in thirty-two lines at the start of Act IV. Shakespeare is cavalier with time and geography in The Winter’s Tale. Northern Broadsides embrace the peculiarities of the play. It’s a work of outlandish time-shifts and extravagant mood-swings, self-deception and bucolic merriment. It is not a play of character – it is a play of passions. The jealousy which sets the events in motion erupts from nowhere. There is the statue that comes to life. And there is the savage bear.
Playful, mischievous tones enliven this production: it festive and dark and at times carnivalesque. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play. Time, introducing the second half, appears to blow away clouds projected on to the back wall. Later, the huge growling head of bear dominates the same wall – an amusing if rather confusing device. Perhaps more could have been made of these projections, to help convey the more fantastic elements. Mike Hugo as Autolycus, the endearing rogue, is outstanding, a chameleon of dishonest endeavour: one moment he’s a a grubby, anoraked Manc on the make, the next he’s a twinkly singing Scouser. This is an inventive and witty entertainment from Northern Broadsides. And there’s not a long vowel to be heard.
The Winter’s Tale is currently touring until November 28. For dates and venues visit: http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk.
Stephen is a third year Creative Writing Student. He has had work published in Black Static magazine, LossLit magazine and Popshot magazine. You can read more of his writing here and follow him on Twitter here.