SHAKESPEARE’s The Winter’s Tale was presented by students following the International Acting Course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It was directed by Kim Durham, the course head. Often described as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, the production itself was not without its problems, not all of which were solved in a totally satisfactory way. For me, it came across as a bit of a hotchpotch at times, lacking in structure and possibly in need of more authoritarian direction.
With a group of young international students from countries as diverse as South Africa, Canada, US, Australia and the Far East, one might have expected a wonderfully rich interpretation. However, although there was abundant evidence of this being the sort of production where everyone involved has been invited to contribute, the apparent lack of an overall concept sadly meant that the final product did not really live up to expectation. The diversity of accents was often more irritating than enriching, different acting styles did not always complement each other, there was more than a hint of stereotyping at times, the range of music used seemed almost random, while the motley collection of costumes often looked messy and ill-considered. In the last act of the play for example, Perdita, the king’s daughter, looked like some Egyptian Barbie doll – quite bizarre, whilst an earlier rock-and-roll sequence, although genuinely quite slick, seemed singularly out of place.
In the role of the increasingly jealous King of Sicilia, Leontes, Matthew Alves gave a fine performance. His growing conviction that his wife was being unfaithful to him was well executed, aided, at one point, by a particularly clever bit of staging, where the action and lighting changed momentarily allowing us to see Hermione (the queen) and Polixenes (the perceived rival) from the king’s perspective. Despite the valiant efforts of theatre companies and educators the world over, for most of us, Shakespeare is still not easy theatre, and anything that helps focus the audience, especially at key moments such as this, is surely to be applauded. If only this particular technique had become more a feature of the production than a one-off, it might well have gone some way to establishing a more satisfying production style. Alves’ crystal clear diction, which was maintained throughout the play, was particularly effective in his soliloquies, when we could enjoy the richness of Shakespeare’s language without having to struggle to hear what was being said. Unfortunately, the same could not always be said for some of the others. The tendency of many actors and directors to treat Shakespeare’s words as though they were naturalistic conversations from a soap opera where you can guess what’s coming next simply does not work for me; it doesn’t take long before I start to drift off.
Amongst other notable performances, Josh Wiseman brought a sense of compassion and authority to his role as Camillo, a Lord of Sicilia, and a natural sense of humour to his portrayal of the young shepherd or clown, when there was some lovely banter with the audience. He and Old Shepherd (played by Paul Bryan) also made the most of their double act towards the end of the play as the newly gentrified father and son.
There were some fairly considerable alterations to the script to allow Time (played by Mina Kweon) to become a far more significant role. Stylised tai-chi like movement together with some amplification and reverberation created an air of exoticism and mystery which was used to good effect to give the play a new beginning. The sixteen year time-lapse was imaginatively executed when Perdita, played by Sophie McBean, who hitherto had been sitting on the side whimpering and crying, was led up onto the stage by Time to replace the baby in the basket; so simple but so effective and one of those moments that really helped focus the attention of the audience. Finally, whereas in the original play, the awakening of the statue in the closing scene is handled by Paulina, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, in this production it was again Time in control.
Incidentally, no doubt arising from Mina Kweon’s and perhaps also from James Hansen’s (Polixenes) ethnicity, both were oriental, from South Korea and Hong Kong respectively, the famous stage direction “exit pursued by a bear” was re-interpreted as “exit pursued by a Chinese dragon”. Not for the purist perhaps, but I liked it.
Alongside some of these more notable performances there were other nice touches; the use of a life-sized puppet to portray Mamillius, Leontes’ son, was an imaginative solution to a potential problem, and there was some strikingly effective group movement in places – I particularly liked the ensemble scene, fairly late on in the play, when the news that Perdita was in fact the king’s daughter was being passed from person to person.
The play is in performance until Saturday 21st June.