Review: The Winter’s Tale – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Shakespearian scholars may have to revise their thesis for, if we are to believe Ed Hall’s vibrant staging of The Winter’s Tale, Delia Smith’s now infamous Carrow Road touchline cry of ‘let’s be having yer’ is in fact a long lost line from The Bard. Then again, any production that also includes the line ‘take it away, saxophone sheep’ tells you this isn’t any normal Winter’s Tale.

To keep the football metaphor, it is in many ways a game of two halves. Act one, set in a slick Sicilian court, is a more traditional affair. Modern dress, yes, and set against a chrome clad, minimalist set but played very much low key. As Leontes falsely accuses his wife Hermione of infidelity, he loses both her and their daughter, Perdita.

For a while we think that Propeller have abandoned their normal anarchic style but, post-interval, the action shifts to a wild and debauched Bohemia, complete with rock ‘n’ roll and singing sheep. It’s during this wild festival scene that loveable rouge Autolycus integrates Delia’s words, one of many interactions with the fortunate, or unfortunate, ladies of the front rows.

Among all the revelry there’s a sense that this is perhaps the final fling of youth, a last chance to party before having to face the realities of adulthood and sure, as the party ends, we return to the formality of court.

Hall’s production, despite the odd addition, focuses heavily on delivering a clear text. On the whole it succeeds, with Leontes’ final reconciliation with wife and daughter played out with almost brutal clarity. If there is any issue with the production it is that the ingenuity of the polar opposite of styles often serve to highlight why some see this as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays. Is it a play or actually two plays? The tragedy of Sicilia and the ribald comedy of Bohemia. Both very well performed and directed but sitting somewhat uncomfortably with each other.

There are fine performances throughout the all-male ensemble. Robert Hands’ Leontes balances rage and regret beautifully, while Richard Dempsey as his wronged Queen is an impressive study in dignity even when betrayed.

There’s fine comic work from Tony Bell’s ageing rocker Autolycus, including a well-timed scene seeing him rob Karl Davies’ young shepherd of almost all of his clothes.

Purisits may frown upon the interpretation and Beyonce numbers may not feature in many editions of the Complete Works but, at the end of the day Shakespeare himself was a storyteller, and here Propeller fulfil that remit – they take a well-known tale, not without its issues, and breathe new life into it. As a rallying cry to experience a bold and brave Shakespeare, as Delia herself would say ‘let’s be having yer’.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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