Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - The Winter's Tale

20th January to 19th March 2005.

From The Times.

Four stars
Sand: in this production by Edward Hall and his acclaimed all-male Shakespearean troupe, Propeller, it’s under the floorboards, trickling from the ceiling, and flowing through the hourglass that marks the irrevocable passage of time and is the play’s central motif. The kingdom of Sicilia, ruled by a monarch who is about to all but lose his mind, is built on shifting foundations.

Hall’s version begins like a twisted children’s game, as the young Prince Mamillius, played by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Tam Williams, manipulates wooden dolls to the sound of tinkling nursery music. A frail figure in pyjamas, he seems frighteningly vulnerable when the scene bursts into life and he is thrown among the bustle of the court and the dangerous, complex emotional transactions of adult life. As Richard Clothier’s brutal Leontes, consumed with sexual jealousy, sets about destroying his family, the boy watches, wide-eyed with horror. What he witnesses proves deadly. Mamillius’s offstage death is here unavoidably the legacy of abuse; his small, pale ghost haunts the action accusingly to its disturbing end.

The Sicilia scenes are uncompromisingly savage. Clothier kicks his heavily pregnant wife Hermione (played with dignity by Simon Scardifield) to the floor and spits on her; he flings the terrified Mamillius aside like a toy, and his hatred for his newborn baby daughter is chilling. It’s behaviour bordering on the psychotic, and the shiny silver band of the crown he wears on his forehead looks like some sinister piece of surgical equipment. That Polixenes (Vince Leigh), his former friend and ruler of Bohemia, wears one similar implies that despotic inhumanity is a psychological defect that they share, and presages the cruelty with which Polixenes treats own son Florizel and the lost Sicilian princess, Perdita.

But the production’s Bohemian section feels anticlimactic after what has come before. The sheep-shearing sequence, always a sticky spot, with its less than side-splitting clowning and irksome pastoral jollity, here has a galumphing blokiness that needs offsetting with more delicacy and tenderness. Tony Bell’s ageing Northern rocker Autolycus is fun, though, and there is an enjoyably daft appearance by a flock of fluffy, floppy-eared sheep.

Such tomfoolery is forgotten, however, by the final reconciliation scene: stage-managed by Adam Levy’s elegant, intelligent, firecracker Paulina, it’s as painful as it is equivocal. It’s enough to make you forgive the shortcomings of a production that, in its finest hour, is unforgettable.

SAM MARLOWE

From the Guardian.

Four stars
Sand falls like rain from an hourglass in the sky and a small pyjama-clad boy plays with his wooden dolls, screwing up his eyes against the terrors of the night. Edward Hall's production of Shakespeare's play for the all-male company Propeller is framed as a nightmare of family disintegration experienced by the doomed young prince, Mamillius, and it made me shiver with pleasure. It is full of originality, yet it is always in the service of this late romance with its entwining mix of death and rebirth.

Leontes' court is frosted with ice and thick with the smug smell of cigars and brandy. But something is rotten in Sicilia. Through Mamillius's appalled eyes we see the cracks as the raging Leontes takes against his wife, who he mistakenly believes has been unfaithful with Polixenes. Jealousy strikes here like a hot flush in a cold white light. It is swiftly followed by madness - the madness of men who cut themselves off emotionally from their wives and children.

In many ways, Hall's production can be read as a critique of bad fathering, with the behaviour of Leontes and Polixenes in sharp contrast to that of the old Shepherd who discovers and brings up the lost princess, Perdita. At the end, Mamillius recoils from his father as if he has had a nightmarish vision of the man he may become and rejects it. If there is any redemption here, it is a ghostly one.

There are many innovative touches in this beautifully acted evening, from the triple casting of Mamillius as Time and Perdita to a Paulina who is not the serene wise woman of tradition but a spitfire who will never let Leontes forget what he has done. The Bohemia scenes are giddy fun, with troublesome sheep and the roguish Autolycus played as a naff, ageing rocker. Even "Exit, pursued by a bear" gets a new twist. Roars of approval all round.

LYN GARDNER

There is a 4-star review by Whatsonstage ("this wonderfully strong company... gripping").

There is a review by Reviews Gate here ("get there - it's stunning... a thrilling and often ferocious work... magnificent production... as near perfect as theatre can get... this venture is quite inspiring").

From Newbury Theatre.

Call me old fashioned, but men playing women’s parts doesn’t really work for me – I know that’s how it was in Shakespeare’s time; I find it too distracting. But Propeller’s all-male company have once again shown that top-quality acting and directing can overcome all objections.

The first half of the play is set in Sicilia, ruled by King Leontes (Richard Clothier). We should realise from the manic glint in his eye that things are not going to turn out well for his family. He accuses his pregnant wife Hermione, played with resigned sadness by Simon Scardifield, of having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Vince Leigh) and disowns the baby girl when she is born. By the end of the act, his son Mamillius (a wistful performance from Tam Williams) and Hermione are dead, and the baby abandoned on foreign shores. All is not lost, however, as baby Perdita is rescued and taken in by Old Shepherd and his son, a nice comic double act from Chris Myles and James Tucker.

Things look up in the second half, where time has moved on 16 years. Perdita (Tam Williams) is now a beautiful young lady, in love with Florizel (played by Prince Harry lookalike Dugald Bruce Lockhart) who is the son of King Polixenes but isn’t letting on about Daddy’s job. More comic relief comes from Autolycus, “a rogue” – think of a dissipated Tom Jones crossed with Eric Morecambe, with a bit of Del Boy thrown in. The main characters return to Sicilia for the moving ending, orchestrated by Paulina (a powerful performance from Adam Levy) but we are left with a doubt about whether the ending is happy, as you might infer from reading the play, or not.

As with all the Propeller productions I have seen, director Edward Hall brings Shakespeare to life in a way that is nothing short of magical. It takes your brain (well, mine anyway) a few minutes to get into the language of the 17th century, but after that it’s as clear as crystal and totally absorbing. Go and see it – you will enjoy it. I wonder what the bard would make of it – I guess he’d be rocking along with Autolycus and the band.

PAUL SHAVE

From Kick FM.

Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller company are back at the Watermill with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This is a story about sexual jealousy and the devastating effect it has on the family of the King of Sicilia. The acting is excellent, under an inspiring director, and the play is totally absorbing. Don’t be put off going to see Shakespeare because you think it’s too boring or difficult – this is going to be another award-winning play, so see it now while you’ve got the chance.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Daily Telegraph.

Can you care for a heavily pregnant queen brought to the point of death by the accusations of her insanely jealous husband when she's played by a balding thirtysomething bloke with what looks like a pillow stuffed up his dress? The answer, in Edward Hall's superlative all-male production of The Winter's Tale, is a resounding "yes".

There have been many prettier Hermiones than Simon Scardifield but beauty is beside the point when the protagonist can't see what's staring him right in the face.

With Scardifield, you keenly feel the wrong inflicted by the Sicilian King Leontes, who goes berserk after Hermione pleads, on his behalf, for his Bohemian counterpart, Polixenes, to remain as their guest.

That's partly down to his considerable talent as an actor - suggesting first carefree jocularity, then pained, graceful patience and rising to a brilliantly achieved crescendo of indignation during the trial scene - and partly down to the cross-dressing conceit itself, which accentuates the fact that, in this marriage, where equality should exist, there is none.

I had my initial doubts, to be honest, as to whether this, the seventh all-male production by Hall's company Propeller, was about more than keeping an exceptionally fine ensemble together; but it swiftly becomes clear that the gender-bending enables Hall to bring Shakespeare's play into sharp focus.

Much emphasis is placed here on Leontes's doomed young son, Mamillius, who - played by the androgynously handsome Tam Williams - stalks the stage in pyjamas and surveys the adult world with a haunted, horrified look. Hall arranges the text so that it's at the moment he unfolds his tale to his mother that the action, already cantering along, starts to gallop, as Leontes's murderous paranoia - brilliantly caught by an anguished, splenetic Richard Clothier - takes hold.

It's as though the whole thing might be a midwinter night's dream, in which the latent anxieties of a boy about what will be expected of him as a man are feverishly played out.

Propeller's collective ingenuity, combined with their propensity to break into song, makes this an evening that delights the heart as much as it stimulates the mind. From the use of moistened fingers on brandy glasses to provide an eerie underscore in Sicily to the puerile impersonation of sheep in the pastoral knockabout of the second half, the mood shifts perfectly between restraint and gay abandon. Not an inch of the Watermill's tiny stage is unused, not a moment of the play wasted. A joy to behold.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

From the Financial Times.

Somehow it does not matter that The Winter's Tale is more complex than any single production can fully realise. As with so much of Shakespeare, we find our breath taken away by the originality of its human relationships, its theatrical situations, its violent emotions and above all its piercing imagery, so that to return to the play in the theatre is often to feel we are experiencing it for the first time.

At Newbury's enchanting Watermill Theatre, the director Edward Hall has been working since the mid-1990s on a series of Shakespeare plays with his all-male Propeller Company, with marvellous results. Propeller is a real company; and its casting of men in women's roles is always startling - never trying to fool us that these are real women, always making us feel anew how these women are coping in a man's world, and sometimes bringing a kind of outsize force to the heroines that makes their qualities mint-fresh. There are many layers of theatrical experience going on here, yet what is most valuable is that these Propeller productions confer an innocence on the plays: nothing here feels too clever, too precious.

I suppose there are imperfections in this production. I find Adam Levy's Paulina too choreographed, the least integrated member of the ensemble. It is revelatory to have both Mamilius and Perdita played by one actor, but Tam Williams is a bit monotonous, especially in Perdita's brink-of-tears expression. Tony Bell brings scampish fun to Autolycus, but does not light up the charm in his words. Yet the play enthrals. Simon Scardifield makes Hermione the play's centre of charm and pathos, and takes time off to play the shepherdess Dorcas with terrific silliness (Jules Werner as the shepherdess Mopsa is even funnier). Richard Clothier, speaking the taxing role of the jealous Leontes with effortless naturalness, lets Shakespeare astound us just by the simplicity with which he utters such images as "There may be in the cup/ A spider steep'd, and one may drink. I have drunk, and seen the spider." We gasp, but he sweeps on.

ALASTAIR MACAULAY

From the Newbury Weekly News.

So... who's sorry now?

The Winter's Tale, at The Watermill, until Saturday, March 19

This is one stylish production, with Ed Hall's all-male Propeller crew sporting sharp suits and brilliantined hair to raise their brandy glasses in the cigar-smoke fug reminiscent of gentlemen's clubs - the convivial setting for the royal court of Sicilia.

Leontes may have been king, but certainly no gentleman. As candles flickered along the cold grey walls, his mood changed in a flash as he turned on his pregnant queen and friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia.
Misguidedly imagining himself cuckolded, suspicion ate away, and so began a spiral of self-destruction, together with all he held dear, even stooping so low as to search the face of his beloved son, for traces of his own.

For the next hour-and-a-half we witnessed his crazed jealousy, casting out the blameless Bohemia, exiling loyal courtiers, incarcerating his queen and abandoning his gaol-born daughter to the wilderness.

All reason gone, nothing could stop him, neither his son's death nor, seemingly, his wife's. So strong was his paranoid conviction that he rejected out of hand The Oracle's 'innocent' verdict on the queen.

With candles snuffed out, Sicilia became a dark place. And come the interval, we were begging for some light relief, which arrived in the nick of time, as the action transferred to Bohemia, land of ex-pats, flowers, fertility and gay abandon.

What followed next was raucous cavorting by the inimitable 12-stong, 22 part cast and on Wednesday evening they shamelessly played up to the delight of an audience of young ladies from a certain Cheltenham college.

Time threads throughout this tale, and has a way of resolving things. Reconciliation is finally achieved back in Sicilia.

Despite the late hour, my 11-year-old had no problem grasping the plot of this three hour Shakespeare -actually, he said that it was the best thing he'd seen at The Watermill. Such is the accessibility of Ed Hall's production. If you don't go to anything else all year, don't miss this one.

TRISH LEE

From The Independent.

Five stars
Sand falls from the sky, as though from some heavenly hourglass, and a small pyjama-clad boy, playing with dolls, screws up his eyes against the terrors of night-time. This is the opening image of Edward Hall's superb all-male staging of The Winter's Tale in the delectably intimate Watermill Theatre. With his Propeller Company, Hall has earned rave reviews for such productions as Rose Rage, which set a slimmed-down version of Shakespeare's first history tetralogy in a meat-suffused abattoir. Here they surpass themselves with a wonderfully acute interpretation of this glorious, but tricky late tragicomedy where winter passes into spring and murderous madness modulates into equivocal redemption.

In an original but piercingly apt directorial touch, the small boy Mamillius (beautiful Tam Williams) haunts the proceedings here. Environed by candle-lit Jacobean panelling, the modern-dress court of Sicilia is a bluff world of cigars and brandy. The boy watches with frowning horror as his father Leontes (the excellent Richard Clothier) topples into the pit of insane jealousy and even stoops to kicking Hermione, the pregnant wife (portrayed with heart-stopping dignity by Simon Scardifield) whom he baselessly suspects of adultery with his best friend.

In depicting the drama's generational progression (youth, to some extent, rectifying what age has wrecked) most productions have the same actress playing Hermione and her long-lost daughter, Perdita. Here, though, it's Tam Williams who graduates from boyhood's pyjamas to a lovely floral frock and from portraying the child who died as a result of the father's berserk suspicions to delineating the girl who survives and reunites the family.

With the theatre decked in garlands, the infamously difficult sheep-shearing festival is here a riot of terrific, unforced comedy. Tony Bell is a disreputable joy as Autolycus, presenting this pick-pocketing rogue as an ageing Northern rocker who manages to fleece James Tucker's blissful Young Shepherd of his entire wardrobe. The idiotic sight of Tucker unwittingly (but avidly) co-operating in this striptease sent tears of mirth streaming down my face.

A creepy, ghost-like atmosphere returns with the fifth act, where Hall puts particular stress on the partial nature of the reconciliation and rebuilt happiness. He's noticed that when the statue of Hermione comes to life, she does not address a word to her husband, speaking only to Perdita. This production intensifies that oddly unsettling aspect. The happy ending unravels, with the courtiers peeling away from the triumphant Leontes. Divesting himself of his frock, Tam Williams becomes once again the son who is conspicuous by his absence at this reunion. He stares at Leontes with accusing incredulity - the whole play seems to be framed as a nightmare of bad fathering - before blowing out the candle with a pained dismissiveness and bringing his ordeal to an end. Unreservedly recommended.

PAUL TAYLOR

From the Sunday Times.

Three stars
The young boy lights a candle in the darkness. In the background, a clock tick-tocks. Edward Hall’s all-male production is about time: how it passes, how it punishes and heals. The boy (Tam Williams) is little Prince Mamillius, son of King Leontes of Sicily (Richard Clothier), who, in a fit of demented jealousy, destroys his queen. Williams also plays Time, the figure whose semi-archaic speech links the play’s two halves, destruction and redemption. This is a tough, hard-edged fairy tale, and Hall drives it swiftly. Sometimes too swiftly: the magical recognition scene at the end needs more breathing space, and so do the early scenes, which need more playfulness and intimacy. Cutting Polixenes’ speech about art and nature is a mistake: it gives something to the ending that is more than fairy tale. The acting is economical, precise, intimate. Simon Scardifield’s Queen is dignified and angry: the victim as prosecutor. The sheep-shearing scenes are irresistibly festive, and Tony Bell’s Autolycus makes Rod Stewart look like Saint Francis of Assisi.

JOHN PETER