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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Hampstead Theatre


  The company of The Winter's Tale/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The all-male Shakespeare company Propeller has a track record of pairing seemingly discordant plays. Their previous double-bill paired The Comedy of Errors and Richard III, turning the tragedy into a noir comedy, and the comedy into dark irony.

This time, the rewards do not come in tandem. And there is little point in making a marathon of the two productions, which is often the most rewarding way of watching cross-cast plays. Rather, the battle cry that is Henry V remains largely uninformed by the much more psychologically slippery The Winter’s Tale, and vice versa.

But there are parallels. Propeller artistic director Edward Hall (who is also artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre) comes up with a clever framing device for each play. In Henry, the chorus who implores the audience to use their imagination as the action moves from the English king's court to the killing fields of northern France, is played by the entire cast dressed in combat fatigues. They launch into Shakespeare's history play like soldiers relating their most recent campaign.

The Winter's Tale, by contrast, is framed within the imagination of one individual – the dead young son of Leontes, a fatal victim of his father's unfounded jealous rage against his mother. The boy, dressed in pajamas, is an almost constant onstage presence – a child puppet master given to playing with dolls. The child's play comes into its own when, at the insistence of his psychotic father, the boy's baby sister is left in the wilderness by Antigonus, who is in turn ravaged to death by a bear. The almost unstageable scene is simply achieved as the boy brings together two of his toys – a doll and a teddy bear – and as they meet the air is saturated with the deafening roar of a grizzly.

The dead boy prince also makes more sense of the odd central Bohemia scenes. Here, Hall seizes the chance to inject some high comedy into a hitherto dour drama. The bucolic idyl is populated by sheep, played by the cast in white woolen sweaters, and John Dugall's kindly Old Shepherd is pure Yorkshire farmer with an accent as broad as the flat cap on his head. Tony Bell's Autolycus is an ageing rock star, which would have worked better if Bell could sing. 

But the king's court is where the play is defined. And although, as Leontes, Robert Hands moves superbly from fevered paranoia to sobbing regret at his own stupidity, opposite him Richard Dempsey's Hermione comes across as the kind of spouse – lofty, self righteous, pompous and downright annoying – who could drive any husband to making all sorts of unfounded accusations, if only to get his wife out of the room. It leaves a void in the heart where there should be an aching sympathy for Hermione's suffering and Leontes' regret, which is possibly why of the two plays Henry V is the more rewarding.

Fifteen years ago, Henry V was Propeller's inaugural production, and in this Olympian year of unashamed patriotism the company returns to it with vigour and panache. It's a production brimful of in-jokes about what it is to be English – boorish, drunk, eloquent, brave and stupid. The violence of battle is meted out by soldiers hitting punchbags with baseball bats, the sound of which is sickening when accompanied by a body writhing in pain. And the show has a telling soundtrack, most notably The Clash's “London Calling” as Hal's army lands in France on amphibious craft as if it were D-Day.

I'm not sure I'd follow Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Harry into the breach, but Hall's production is packed with the vision thing, simultaneously reveling in Shakespeare's rousing battle cry while subverting it with questioning irony, just as the author intended.

Perhaps there is a link between the two productions after all. Each brings out Shakespeare's mastery of ambiguity. You leave Henry V with a sense of tainted triumph and The Winter's Tale with a sense of undeserved redemption. And while one leader is showered in glory for his obsessive determination, the other almost drowns in shame.


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