“A sad tale’s best for winter,” states young Mamillius, ill-starred scion of that Oracle-proclaimed “jealous tyrant” King Leontes and his falsely-accused Queen, Hermione. Judging by the overall mood of Propeller’s production, Ed Hall would seem to agree with the young prince’s statement. Make no mistake, the dizzying tonal shifts in Shakespeare’s genre-bending late romance are accomplished with characteristic Propeller panache here. The action moves from a dark, steely Sicilia to a riotous, colourful, music-fest of a Bohemia presided over by an ageing rock God Autolycus (Tony Bell, natch) and complete with back-up singing sheep and Beyoncé dance routines. And yet for all the anarchic joy that that sequence generates, the overriding mood of Hall’s production is melancholic, its final flourish offering one of those indelible Propeller moments that takes you by surprise and yet feels exactly right. Reunions and reconciliations accomplished, there’s a memorable sting in this Tale.
Paired up with their solid but (to me) slightly disappointing Henry V, Propeller return to pretty much peak form with this hugely entertaining production, which suggests a mixture of self-made adult nightmare and child’s playtime dream-world. It’s an enchanting , funny and very moving staging that makes sense of the play’s uncanny amalgam of disturbing psychological study and restorative pastoral fantasy.
As Leontes - “an Othello who is his own Iago” to use Harold Bloom's nifty appraisal of the character - Robert Hands gives a subtle, astutely judged performance: he unravels without grandstanding. Richard Dempsey is an elegant, moving Hermione, especially strong in a (brilliantly done) trial scene. Vince Leigh’s Paulina is stately and commonsensical, defiant but un-shrewish as she makes the case for the Queen. John Dougall and Karl Davies are warm and hilarious as the Shepherds. And the incomparable Mr. Bell is a perfect cutpurse MC, by turns arthritic and spry, strewing thongs and condoms. In an especially deft touch Mamillius (Ben Allen, who’s also a fetching Perdita in the Bohemia scenes) remains a ghostly presence at key moments, giving the most notorious stage direction in Shakespeare a brilliant twist. But for all the inventive conceits it’s the heart-wrenching, exquisitely judged ending that haunts the most, and that lifts a very good production into true greatness. A sad tale’s best for winter, indeed.
The production tours with Henry V until July. Full information on dates and venues details at the Propeller website.