Brighton Fringe 2011
Now is the Winter is the story of key events from Shakespeare’s Richard III, re-told by Bess, a loyal servant of Richard’s from his days as Duke of Gloucester to his death at the battle of Bosworth. The writer Kate Saffin created the character of Bess as a way of exploring a different perspective on these events, and on Richard himself, by taking the viewpoint of a female domestic who listens at doorways and observes from the kitchen window as she goes about her everyday duties. Saffin has cleverly selected, edited and put together speeches and segments of Shakespeare’s play that take on a different tone and meaning when spoken by Bess –from Richard’s famous ‘Now is the Winter .. ‘ speech to Richmond’s victory speech after Richard’s death.
Helen McGregor takes this newly formed ‘Shakespearean’ character and exudes warmth, mischief, diligence, loyalty to Richard and an easy intimacy with the audience. Her performance is one you’d be pleased to see in the best productions of Shakespeare; she handles the language with a conversational accessibility without losing any of its poetry. This is also due to the central conceit of the play – that the character is not a king or a duke or a soldier, but a serving woman addressing us in snatched encounters. A line beginning with the simple ‘Men say…’ which in the original is about what ‘everyman’ says, becomes, with the raising of McGregor’s eyebrows, a comment on male viewpoints on the world. Throughout the piece, Bess’s work doesn’t stop – the food preparation, drying and folding the washing, kneading the dough. We are always reminded of this woman’s position, whilst benefitting from the eavesdropping it affords her.
But Bess can seem almost too knowledgeable and opinionated for a servant living in circumstances where political power was shifting rapidly and no-one knew who might be next for the tower, whose head next on the block. We almost fear for her loose tongue and strong, loyal opinions. I love the way in which Shakespeare’s words take on such a different meaning when spoken by Bess, but I was left wanting to know more about her. She is not faced with choices or dilemmas in her own dramatic journey, and thus remains undeveloped. She retells and responds to events rather than playing a part in how events unfold for her. Perhaps I am wrong to look for this. Now is the Winter is certainly a very engaging piece that gives the audience a fresh view of Shakespeare and I’m all for that.
Saffin’s direction ensures that the performance and the overall look, feel and sound of the piece are perfectly in tune. There is an air of simplicity about the piece that only comes about after hard work and an intelligent, creative overview. The staging is well suited to the venue with its beams and shutters, the lighting is warm and domestic, with a later dramatic switch to bloody red, and the sound design is authentic and sparing. Simple domestic props are put to imaginative and sometimes mischievous use, especially when used to juxtapose the homely with high politics.
You don’t need to know Richard III to enjoy this play, though you may find it helpful to read the programme notes before or after. Get along and let McGregor draw you in to her busy Shakespearean kitchen and her clever, fresh twisted tales of the high and mighty.