Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Conor Baum and produced by Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld. Designed by Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld with the support of Gladrags Community Costume Resource.
Music Arranged by Alissandra Henderson, Andrew Hoggarth, Natasha Kafka, Conor Baum.
Puppet designed by Conor Baum and constructed by Conor Baum, Lexi Pickett, Rosanna Bini and Benjamin Darlington
Set Pieces and lighting provided by IC Theatre Brighton. Next mystery play on 5th and 6th August. That’s Thursday and Friday to avoid conflict with Pride Weekend.
Already the second of six One Fell Swoop’s Unlocked Shakespeare surprises unleashes at St Ann’s. It really does. There’s a giant bear loose in the garden. Just wait. It’s the reverse of California dreaming on such a winter’s day, but winter daydreams in blazing midsummer. It has to be…
The Winter’s Tale from 1609/10 is a late romance, above-average long (just under 25,000 words), a chamber piece with rough edges. The coast of Bohemia and shearing festival, a play with two ends, a winter palace and late summer lovin’ then a return to that palace and a statue. And normally some free radicals, but sheep aren’t the only thing you shear in a festal production.
This is a wonderful brave choice, especially given the aesthetic: actors only discover the play’s title hours earlier and the audience don’t till they rock up. The sheer head-over spontaneity can be vertiginous and hilarious, but also a sublime fall into a bed of St Ann’s roses.
OFS are committed to getting the canon out; even history plays. Seeing what they did on zoom this won’t be dull. But they never got to the Romances, not even in last year’s Unlocked. How do Baum and his cast tackle the dizzying vertical speeches of late Shakespeare?
With aplomb and quotes. No, these are fashion quotes, with a fantastical array of Edwardian top-hats and morning-coats for men (Edwardian means Kenneth Branagh’s 2016 Winter’s Tale is referenced, but that’s all), and for the women green-and-white paisley patterned dresses plus dark-plumb regal for Hermione, and other Hardy-rustic-but-it-could-be-Regency dresses with parasols. Again OFS costumes are a cut above.
If this is a comment on the British empire crumbling slowly like a rich tea digestive, great. It’s never developed unlike last week’s Only-Way-Is-Essex-Merry Wives but we really don’t care. Outdoor productions need splash; this week’s courts theme speaks power-dressing and it’s enough. There’s wondrous ochre, red and yellow shepherd rags for Illyrian shepherds.
The finest coup though is the music. Arranged by Alissandra Henderson, Andrew Hoggarth, Natasha Kafka, Conor Baum, the spiritual ‘Take me home to Jordan’ opens and closes a cappella, to haunting effect; with a bass drum driven by Baum as others – Henderson on fiddle, Hoggarth on guitar – produce incidental music worthy of a full-scale production. It’s a special one here as are individual violin solos, quotes like Massenet’s Thais’ meditation.
There’s another finest coup. That bear. Its puppet’s designed by Baum, constructed by him, Lexi Pickett, Rosanna Bini and Benjamin Darlington. A shaggy bear joke, it’s rendered like a Chinese New Year Dragon though in bear colours and a crocodile of humans becoming bear underneath. A superb conceit. As props go – and like the music – it’s luxury casting.
How ground that? It helps that Darlington’s king of Sicilia Leontes, who orders wife Hermione (Joanna Rosenfeld) to persuade his childhood friend also king – of Ilyria – Andrew Hoggarth’s Polixenes to stay longer than his already-overlong nine months.
Darlington has his work cut in blank verse – some of the most compressed dramatic verse Shakespeare wrote. Darlington takes any Shakespearean role head-on, going straight for the language and characterful sense. Having watched Hermione succeed for him, Leontes promptly falls into baseless suspicion of her adultery. Darlington’s full of dark and swivelled looks.
Plot catch-up. Leontes orders faithful chief advisor Camillo (Chris Gates) to murder Polixenes, but Camillo reluctantly deserts his king, warns Polixenes and they escape. Leontes then accuses his heavily pregnant queen. At the resultant trial despite Apollo’s augurs proclaiming innocence, Leontes rejects Apollo and declares guilt and death to both mother and new-delivered baby. Hermione seems to die; as seeming punishment and prophesy, their son Mamilius really does and the daughter’s cast to a wild place on oath by luckless Antigonus, husband of fearless Hemione-champion Paulina, who’s eaten for his pains.
Flash forward sixteen years in Illyria. Baby’s grown to Perdita, the name Hemione in a dream gave her, and as princess-like shepherdess raised by those who found her, catches the eye of Polixenes’ son Floribel. Father’s not amused, they flee the other way to Sicilia where Leontes does penance to Paulina sixteen years, the rest follow and a reunion with a statue become flesh is the magical end.
Darlington we’ve seen has the measure of Leontes, darkening his voice to the brow-bent suspicion of a tormented king whilst projecting it on summer air. This is a production where the full-flung park layout doesn’t work for some romances as it might. This play’s chamber music, with intricate verse. Darlington, ever consummate, conveys the froward furrowed side of Leontes whilst not retreating from wounded majesty. His transformation is finely spun.
Rosenfeld makes a dignified Hermione with a raw edge used with memorable effect in the trial scene. There’s she’s impassioned and at her best exploding with grief. She’s memorably still in the final statue scene and as ever her stage movements are crisp and full of rapt economy.
Natasha Kafka’s two main roles are literally brother Mamilius and the sister he never knows, Perdita. As the former she’s sassy and given those disturbingly precocious lines about dark-browed women being lustful – a delight when standing on the raised platform. As Perdita Kafka’s warm, alert, still the inner princess and not cloying, nor overtly sexual (a recent trend). She’s able to upbraid her lover for his optimism and show shafts of passion.
Hoggarth’s Polixenes is a study in register. He’s an imposing figure – against Darlington he squares well as you’d hope, though of course he wisely decides to flee. Hoggarth deploys northern tang to suggest his foreignness to the RP Sicilians; though coming from coastline Bohemia he’s a commanding king, with his own danger held just in check. Donning shades quite often, even in Sicilia, he suggests a man who counts concealment natural. So hat-spying on his son incognito seems everyday.
Regular Rosanna Bini’s Paulina is daring. Clearly designed to blow away the old-dame-casting environing this role, Bini’s approach veers to the more youthfully outraged, even vehement. This is the kind of production where such experiments in casting are vital, or you grow stale. Bini as ever dispatches energy and the right indignance. There’s more obvious choices for such a role and Baum wants to rough our assumptions. Bini spins out passion and punishment for Leontes. I’ll never think of Paulina in the dame way again.
Gates’ main role as Camillo is all anxious care and glimmering opportunity. It’s a study of an intensely loyal, esteemed courtier who in two scenes sixteen years apart is each time deserting his king or contriving against another king’s wishes. Gates projects dilemma contrasted with Camillo’s opportune dispatch.
Miles Mlambo’s role as courtier Archidemus is relatively brief. As Mariner he’s swift and salty and fills his other roles as an augur-bringer, but as Florizel he’s impetuous and trying to lead Perdita off. Mlambo’s often cast in high romance and his performance here is foil to the warm restraint of Kafka.
As Hermione’s maid Emilia – as well as other lady roles – OFS regular Lexi Pickett returns to this season in fine form: full of care both for Hermione and Mamilius. As Shepherd she revels in the rustic burrs and admonitions to her son.
That’s another returnee Katey Ann Fraser as Clown, as well as taking on various lady roles as well as loyal messenger Dion. Fraser like Pickett well understands the sheer snatch and spontaneity of OFS, and bouncing off each other as Shepherd and Clown is one of the show’s highlights.
Having broadened and upended expectations as slinky Mistress Ford last week, Sharon Drain brings her haunting cut-through voice and poise to luckless Antigonus, and most of all mesmerising briefly as Time at the start of the post-interval second half (Act IV’s opening) where standing on that dais she proclaims the passage of sixteen years. It’s one of the most poignant and rapt moments in the play and this production. Drain also takes Third Servant.
Additional roles are taken by Alissandra Henderson – who’s expanding her range this season – and newcomer Izzie Early who harmonizes well with her.
But… for O for O my Autolycus is forgot! Yes, the most theatrical and lively part of The Winter’s Tale has been excised from this production. You can see why. Remove him and much non-essential business goes too. You get a far sleeker linear structure, so needed in this glinting late summer second-half. You also lose of course much anarchic humour (the rustics foot it lightly still) and antinomian sentiment Autolycus littered under Mercury brings. He’s a favourite of any production, particularly outdoors and the Globe has him working groundlings, offering to snap up their unconsidered trifles, throw out ballads.
To keep the role proves impossible. As it is the production with interval clocks 2 hours 45. Baum keeps energy rippling, even if the park tries letting waves of it crash against shrubbery to slow it down.
Far more difficult to bring off than last week’s slighter Merry Wives, this has a larger audience to cheer it on, and in its music, puppetry costumes and ensemble with stand-outs, this production raises the bar in some departments, and flaunts the scope of OFS ambition. Much soberer than last week, it’s still a production showing the company’s unique slant on Shakespeare.
Emilia/Cleomenes/Shepherd/First Lady/Second Servant
Dion/Second Lady/Clown/Second Lord/First Servant
Katey Ann Fraser