Wednesday, December 31, 2014

'The Winter's Tale' at The Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, 29th December 2014

I've got to admit, the prospect of a "steampunk reimagining of Shakespeare" filled me with a cold sense of dread.  For those not down with geeky subcultures, steampunk is essentially Victorian futurism; think Jules Verne as imagined by teenagers who've watched too many Final Fantasy games.  What it boils down to is dirigible airships, quasi-military imperial uniforms, top hats, things with cogs and gears randomly glued onto them, corsets, leather straps and goggles.  Lots of goggles.  Goggles as far as the eye can see!  

Compounding this is that there's few things more excruciating to suffer through than bad Shakespeare.  I've seen some awful, mangled adaptations in my time; actors parping their way through lines they don't quite understand in awkward monotones.  It's this that I expected - spending most of the day prior to the show steeling myself for the worst.

So it was with some surprise that The Shakespeare Sessions's The Winter's Tale turned out to actually be pretty good.  Very quickly you breathe a sigh of relief that this cast can actually deliver this dialogue with rhythm, character and intelligence; you gasp, laugh and scream at just the right points.  More importantly, the adaptation by Ross McGregor cleverly zeroes in on precisely the right elements to give it a very welcome electricity.

Compared to the monolithic cultural totems of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth, A Winter's Tale is a somewhat less familiar tale.  I saw an adaptation of it a very long time ago in Cardiff, but time has withered my memory a bit.  What transpires is a tale of two halves; the first an Othello-esque parade of jealousy, murder, heartbreak and madness as Leontes, King of Sicilia becomes convinced his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione has cheated on him with his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  

Disowning his newborn daughter with the terrifying proclamation "The bastard brains with these my proper hands shall I dash out!he settles for having her dispatched to an area where chance will decide her fate.  Simultaneously he puts his wife on trial (here still wearing her bloodstained birthing dress).  The raving King decries his innocent Queen in front of the whole court, leading to the rapid death of his beloved son, apparently from stress, soon followed by the death of the Queen and the abandonment of his daughter on a stormy cliff.  The officer charged with abandoning the baby is then dispatched with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear".

It's a neat trick, usually Shakespeare bumps off everyone at the end of the play, but by time the first act curtain falls here most of our primary characters are toast.  The second, more comedic half takes place 16 years later, and chronicles the miraculous healing of these wounds.  The cast handles this split between tragedy and comedy confidently, equally able to switch from funereal wailing to upbeat verbal bumpkinnery without missing a step.

Highlights are Christopher Neels' Leontes, who binds together warped paternal passions, fury and a weird sympathy into one strained character.  The character is a difficult one to play given that he has to be a psychotic monster for one act, then gradually be redeemed through grief in the second.  Somehow Neels pulls it off, both terrorising and drawing tears from the audience.  

In a slightly less showy role is Hannah Ellis as Paulina/Dorcas.  She isn't ever the narrative centre of attention, but she nevertheless conveys a sad, slow-burning anger that leads us to wonder if there's a whole other backroom play as interesting as what's front and centre - like a romantic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Robert Myles also knocks us for six as the verbally and physically acrobatic Autolycus.

Much of the unexpected success of this adaptation stems from the fact that the steampunk aspects are minimised as much as possible.  The costumes could just about be Napoleonic era if you squint, the only real concession to the aesthetic the omnipresent goggles.  Why everyone needs a pair of goggles at all times is never quite explained, no-one ever actually uses them, they don't appear to do any flying or driving and things don't seem especially windy.  Best just to ignore them.

Slightly less easy to ignore is the insertion of a rather unElizabethan robot into the final scenes, but after some hemming and hawing I suppose it just about fits what Shakespeare might have had in mind.  More eyebrow raising turn out to be the short musical interludes. These range in quality; the best a moody performance of Leadbelly's In The Pines and the worst a spirited yet thunderously out of place rendition of Lloyd's Dedication to My Ex, replete with a lengthy rap solo where Autolycus channels Andre 3000.

Everything else is so neatly put together that it's easy to do your best to ignore the dumb steampunk style and tonal missteps.  The aim of any good Shakespeare production is to give the audience an emotional wallop as well as an intellectual one.  The Winter's Tale does that in spades, and though it's far from an unreserved success it makes Shakespeare entertaining. That's good enough for me.

The Winter's Tale is at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town until 3rd January 2015.  Tickets here.

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