21 December 2007

REVIEW: The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

The Steam Industry in association with The Courtyard Theatre

The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, London (20.12.07)

(On until January 27, 2008)

There is a sense of wintry magic when I enter the Courtyard Theatre, and it’s not solely due to the crisp December we’re having. To reach the performance space we pass through a vast, blue-lit, mirror-walled studio, lined with art works. From here we enter the theatre proper and are greeted with a rectangular ‘theatre-in-the-round’-type space transformed into a suitably wintry scene, which we must cross to reach the surrounding seats.

Designed by Nicky Bunch, the space is strung with yellow fairy lights amidst sparsely-leafed or dead trees; various farming paraphernalia ring the edges - hay, crates, cartwheels, baskets; and brambles and leaves litter a floor which is dusted with a white paint surprisingly convincing as snow. Thus, we are welcomed to the world of The Winter’s Tale and are appropriately prepared for what will predominantly be a well-staged, well-performed and fun interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most debated plays.

The Winter’s Tale commences with some village people requesting a ballad of a street-seller. Not surprisingly the chosen ballad is the story of King Leontes of Sicilia. One almost feels like one of the villagers who, like us, sit around the edge of the stage to hear and see the tale elapse. The difference, of course, is that the performers jump up and take on roles in the worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia, a feat achieved subtly without breaking flow of the often-intense main-action.

Yet, this audience-performer proximity works both for and against The Winter’s Tale. At times, the breaking down of the audience-performer barrier is ineffective, especially in the village scenes. Under full lights, which in such a space inevitably seep onto the audience, belief in the characters is more difficult to attain, especially as they often move about the space superfluously, though, understandably, in an attempt to involve all four sides of the audience and avoid blocking.

This aside, when the ballad itself (i.e., the play proper) begins with the dimming of lights and symbolic “whooshing” of the wind – a sinister sound used throughout as a motif of evil – a new atmosphere is achieved and instantly gives the piece a more serious feel.

Despite this sometimes awkwardness, there is a positive sensitivity and joviality to the performances, which is endearing. In particular, the performances of Ursula Mohan as Paulina, Natasha Seale as Hermione and Matthew Judd as Florizel must be commended. Mohan captures Paulina’s simultaneously benevolent and scheming persona superbly.

Accordingly, the space itself is utilised very well by director Phil Willmott to create interest and variety. Levels, patterns and angles are all capitalised on to accommodate the unusual setting. In addition, lighting designer Hansjorg Schmidt cleverly complements the more sombre scenes by casting beautiful symmetrical shadows across the floor, adding to the magical presence prevalent throughout.

Without giving too much away, the ending is impossibly corny. Which almost doesn’t fit with how dramatic some parts of the play are (read: Leontes’ demise scene). Nevertheless, we must remember, as the cast go skipping arm-in-arm from the theatre, that this is Shakespeare, a tale of magic and oracles. The winter’s tale, indeed, after which follows the spring. A happy ending, of course, then!

(NB: Many thanks to Remote Goat - www.remotegoat.co.uk - for getting me my ticket!)

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27 December, 2007 10:34  

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