A Winters Tale – Review by Frances Winston
Theatre@36, The Teachers Club, 36 Parnell Square, Dublin 2
10th – 14th June. Tickets: €12/10
As one of Shakespeare’s least performed and least consistent plays this was a brave choice for the first production by the recently formed Bedsheet Theatre Company. However, the fact that it is unfamiliar to many people means that they can perform it without worrying about offending purists. That said it’s a big ask to bring to life a play that even scholars struggle to categorise. For many years it was considered a comedy and now many consider it a romance however it is an extremely unbalanced work with the first three acts being a psychological drama and the final two being comedic in tone. Therefore this was an extremely ambitious undertaking for the fledgling company.
For those unfamiliar with the tale (and apparently there are many) the story is as complex as you would expect from The Bard. Leontes, King of Sicilia, has been playing host to his friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, for several months. When Polixenes announces that he is returning to his kingdom Leontes sends his pregnant wife Hermione to persuade him to stay. However, when she is successful a paranoid Leontes becomes convinced that she and Polixenes have been engaging in an affair and that she is actually pregnant with his child. As Polixenes flees the kingdom Leontes has Hermione imprisoned where she gives birth to a daughter. Thanks to the intervention of others Leontes spares the child but banishes it and she is found and raised by a Sheperdess. In the meantime Leontes kingdom has been cursed after he shunned an Oracle’s statement that Hermione and Polixene’s are innocent. Sixteen years later and unaware of her royal background the child, now known as Perdita, is in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes, and they travel to Sicilia to ask Leontes to persuade Polixenes to allow them to marry. While there all is revealed and as is the norm in these kinds of plays everything is neatly wrapped up and they all live happily ever after(ish).
Bedsheet have been very resourceful in their staging of this play. As their name suggests all the costumes are made of bedsheets (although there seem to be some duvets and throws in there as well). They found a way around Shakespeare’s most confusing of stage directions “exits chased by a bear” through a clever use of shadow puppetry (which went down well with the audience) and they use minimal furniture and props which ensures a quick turn around between scenes.
Unfortunately there are some issues with the text. They really would have benefited from a dramaturge when it came to their edit. For example there are references to “hags” when the character being referred to is being played by a young and beautiful actor and some of the cutting seems rather choppy.
Also, there is an issue with the language which some of the actors seemed to struggle with. I won’t single anyone out but there were several incidents where it was clear the actor wasn’t really sure what the line meant. This could explain the occasional mumbling as there were times when you couldn’t actually hear what was being said and looking at the actors’ qualifications in the programme they should all be familiar with a stage whisper and projection so this probably wasn’t an artistic choice.
Most of these issues rear their heads in the first half (Acts 1-3) which veers on melodrama (a little too much). Post interval (Acts 4-5) it really picks up thanks in no small part to the comedic talents of three of the cast who play multiple roles but really come into their own here. The scenes with the shepherdess, her son the clown, and later with Autolycus the peddler are hilarious and the actors show fantastic comic timing and a real talent for character interpretation. Unfortunately once the drama returns to Sicilia it really dips again and the ending, which should be somewhat epic, feels rather underwhelming (partly again due to volume issues with the actors).
This was always going to be a challenge to stage and unfortunately it suffers for this. The varying levels of experience in the cast are painfully obvious when they are confronted with Shakespeare’s rich language and the overall erratic premise makes for a confusing offering anyway. If it weren’t for the comic relief in the second half it would drag terribly and it feels very disjointed in places. That said it is a sterling, albeit overly ambitious, effort for the companies first outing and it will be interesting to see what they do when they tackle some of the Bard’s less complex works.
Find out more about the Bedsheet Shakespeare Theatre Company here.
You can buy tickets for this event here.