FringeReview UK 2019
Chris Weber Brown’s production of The Winter’s Tale involves a cast of 23. Alan Lade’s set design – built by Don Plimmer and Keith Gilbert – is minimal with a few chairs. The great reveal is the video projection, where design lighting and sound design by Paul Carpenter is integral. Hannah Wilson’s music is haunting and she’s also responsible for movement. Costumes are by Kate Palmer, Claire Chapman and Kirstine Brown emphasize modernity, with a flourish of dresses and Charlotte Carrig’s makeup. James weber Brown’s the fight coach. Weber Brown with text advisor and cast member David Williams has cut much down
This sets new standards. Two years in the preparation, Chris Weber Brown’s production of The Winter’s Tale has been eagerly awaited, and it’s good to see Shakespeare return more regularly.
The last play in LLT’s season has recently been American, and very welcome too. But last year’s Merchant of Venice, which set standards of its own, is perhaps harbinger of a new tradition. Like The Winter’s Tale itself Weber Brown’s production points to renewal. A third of the 23-strong cast make their debut here, and there’s a emphasis on youth and joyousness. As the Old Shepherd has it: ‘I speak of things new born.’ That’s what it feels like here.
Set in the present day with one brief flip of a mobile, it nevertheless anchors timelessness: the old mechanics of time and place – ships and bears pursuing – still lend the distance and enchantment a first audience must have felt.
Dating from 1610-11, The Winter’s Tale has traditionally been seen as Shakespeares penultimate solo-authored play, though now claims that Cymbeline oddly post-dated it are being advanced. It is though – as the poet and Shakespeare critic Martin Seymour-Smith noted – very nearly as great as The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s three finest.
Singular for its bifurcated timeline, mood and place, it poses problems of tone. It starts in tragic mode (‘A sad tale’s best for winter’ as the doomed boy prince Mamilius states), not unlike Pericles. Like that play too the split of sixteen years or so allows a child feared dead to emerge as a young woman.
Weber Brown – with text advisor and cast member David Williams – has cut much down: it fits in a little over two hours’ traffic excluding interval, so famously complex lines enclosing ‘barriacdo for a belly’ and more cheerily rustic ones like (at the end) ‘they were the first gentleman-like tears I ever shed’ are gone. It’s a tale of lucidity spun by this production from dense flax.
Alan Lade’s set design – built by Don Plimmer and Keith Gilbert – is minimal with a few chairs and later some benches and boxes. The great reveal is the video projection, where design, lighting and sound design by Paul Carpenter is integral. Wide, beautifully unfussy and with depth of field. A spacious palace interior, various windswept places, and sun-drenched late summer, it’s all that’s necessary. Hannah Wilson’s music is haunting and she’s also responsible for movement. Costumes by Kate Palmer, Claire Chapman and Kirstine Brown emphasize modernity, with a flourish of dresses and Charlotte Carrig’s makeup. James Weber Brown’s the fight coach.
Chris Parke’s Leontes dominates the first half like an angsty tyranny never free from redemptive feeling but echoing what we know from new tyrants everywhere. Indeed as this production ended its run an Ambassador to the great had secret missives intercepted provoking a tyrannical rage from the orange one. It’s the kind of thing that happens to David Farey’s excellent Camillo, one of the distinguished performances in a near-faultless production, with his pitch-perfect vocal delivery. Both are called traitor for speaking truth to power.
Camillo can’t allay Leontes’ prowling rage. Parke plays Leontes as one whose rage is – like a tale – sudden and almost from nowhere. Parke prepares us though. There’s a watchfulness as Leontes importunes his wife Hermione (Victoria Brewer who just gets better) to get his best friend from childhood King Polixenes (Robert Hamilton, last year’s Shylock) to stay a week more. Polixenes has been here nine months. Leontes then imagines them both having an affair, and orders Polixines death by Camillo’s poisoning him. Instead Camillo – beautifully perplexed here – warns the visiting king who escapes with the soon-damned Camillo. Hamilton’s gravitas particularly suits his major reappearance later, when he’s the tyrant. Again the great vocal clarity of these leading roles is one where you relax with utterly secure performances.
Leontes orders his wife’s trial. All the blocking here from state room gossip to groups dissolving and forming is exemplary. Victoria Brewer’s a little reticent here, but affecting. Her great moment is to come. Sue Shephard’s Paulina begins a little quietly for Paulina but increasingly finds a vocal authority. Logan Brewer, later a Shepherd, is affecting as son Mamilius, who starts precocious yet who sickens on news of his mother’s arraignment. It’s his death that strikes Hermione apparently dead and Leontes sane, having rejected the pronouncements of Apollo’s oracle.
Too late to save the daughter Hermione’s delivered of, already sent away to be cast on the coast of Bohemia, that Neverland Ben Jonson complained of. Darren Heather’s first role as Antigonus is eloquent and the backdrop of bosky pines is sensationally augmented by the shadow of a loping bear – easily the finest realisation of this famous stage direction ever seen by those of us who’ve seen many. Antigonus vainly exits, bear or silhouette in hot pursuit. The dreadful end of Antigonus and of his ship, suddenly dashed to pieces, suggests the only way this paly can end in joy is to march sixteen years. Alice Barling Gasson in her first role delivers the speech of Dion in a fantastical costume.
It’s the Old Shepherd David Parton who with consummate understatement brings Alex Holiday’s vital, impressive rustic into that world of renewal before Dion does her thing. Again these are strong performances. Parton’s worth is well-known, but Holiday is a revelation. It brightens those stretches of The Winter’s Tale which always threaten to eddy to a delightful flower show. Even this production can’t quite avoid that, but not for long.
Having been the Apollo Officer, Anika Charis Cooper’s Autolycus follows last year’s Globe incarnation. Here though Cooper’s memorably integrated into the cast. She’s not a solo show like the Porter, as her equivalent was at the Globe. Cooper’s rap and band experience allows her to riff songs in a routine that gloves her light-fingered self-delight. Her sashaying with the younger cast members suggests an integration befitting someone instrumental in ensuring secrets are uncovered and pardons obtained for the shepherds. Weber Brown’s editing of the role makes this lucid. It’s often snarled in thickets of time-expired wit.
The sheep-shearing festival where Walter Hall’s Florizel so evocatively matches Thea Fox’s Perdita is enchantingly realized against fine blocking and some of the most consummate dance moves seen at LLT. Hall’s fleet, straightforward eloquence rubs up against the ardent but anxious Fox whose instinct for courtly opposition is keener. Fox brings out a double inheritance: a princess’s inherent dignity with a regard for purity; and the freshness a shepherdess exudes, disinhibited from suffering courtly ritual. Hall’s decorously matching Fox is a sensitively-worked partnership.
Dandy Freeman’s attractive Mopsa enjoys an explosive, violent fight with Chance Stoner’s Dorcas that in a lesser production might seem a highlight: it brings out their scrapping over a man more clearly than any production I’ve seen.
Kristina Howell, almost the star of Philip Ayckbourn’s Loving Androids, fills the tiny parts of Emilia and Shepherdess with a memorable lift. Douglas Wragg as Jailor and gentleman, David Williams and Shaun Hughes as Lords, Emily Feist and Sarah Strachan as Ladies and Shepherdesses, and Mark Gourlay’s Servant are often luxury casting: each points up a tiny distinction. Weber Brown allows his actors to breathe into their parts.
It’s the end though that’s so overwhelming. Parke’s penitent Leontes is inscribed with Parke’s latent decency. He doesn’t possess the darkness of some Leontes; more possession than innate. So his redemption is the more convincing. His interaction with Shephard’s Paulina grows – with her increasing authority – into a touching prelude. Brewer stands statuesque in a manner both stock-still and breathtakingly humane. Then there’s an explosion.
It’s between Brewer’s Hermione and Fox’s Perdita when they finally express their feelings. It’s quite overwhelming and no equivalent in any production I’ve seen of this play comes remotely near it. It has consequences as Leontes discovers, and Weber Brown’s lemon twist of an ending leaves Leontes alone. Perhaps he’s banished for more probationary time yet by a newly-discovered wife, or worse. It’s fresh, convincing, and sets the seal on one of the finest LLT productions I can remember.