Theatre Review: The Winter’s Tale by York Shakespeare Project

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“A sad tale’s best for winter:”

Director Natalie-Rose Quatermass transports us to two contrasting worlds in this charming, moving tragicomedy. The cold, stark modern business dress of Sicilia stands proud and stiff among winter-lit castle walls, while the other three seasons combine their warmest vibes to set the scene for Bohemia; a tumbling, skipping, rose-peach scene of music, freedom and feasts. A direct address to the audience implicates us in the potent messages of this ever-relevant script.

Live music and score by Flora Greysteel sets the tone perfectly throughout, adding a layer of richness to Shakespeare’s words that is lacking in so much live theatre today. Ben Prusiner’s delightful set design creates the perfect accompanying visuals; a frigid indoor court for the oppressed Sicilia waiting to out its demons, and the uninhibited comfort of a sunny backyard Bohemia. Keep your eye out for some resourceful bunting. Florence Poskitt’s costume design is also beautifully, subtly complementary to the nuances of the story, with Hermione’s blue velvet night-sky look a particular highlight.

Lovers Florizel (Tom Jennings) and Perdita (Jess Murray) are as heartwarming as Shepherd (Roger Farrington) and Clown (Elizabeth Lockwood) are ridiculous, while Leontes (Paul French) and Polixenes (Nick Jones) form a very sedate, steady pair of grown boyhood friends. French delivers an alarmingly recognisable Leontes; softly-spoken, taut, controlled, with flashes of spitting violence. The cowering anticipation of all around him is tangible. Claire Morley is excellent as always in her clowning conman role of a Britpunk Autolycus, singing and improvising to the audience on an intimate level during the interval, before we see Time’s desperate chorus of a cluttered collective consciousness in turmoil.

In defence of ‘rural latches’

Three characters stood out in this tale of three halves to form a trio of attractive feminist teachers for our modern age. We build from doting wife Hermione (Juliet Waters), who refuses to denounce her love in friendship for a man despite her husband’s palpably violent jealousy, to Camilla (originally Camillo, played by Elizabeth Elsworth) – the committed noblewoman who remains true to her own morals despite her volatile position between a rock and a hard place – to the magnetic Paulina (Maggie Smales),  smashing the patriarchy with elegance and eloquence from her first entrance. Her pleasure on hearing that Hermione’s child is a daughter, alongside Antingonus’s (Tony Froud) devotion to her, is a restorative draft to fill anyone’s cup. And then there is her speech on witchcraft, which… until emoji in reviews are a thing, let me simply suggest here that Smales lights several fires in this scene.

This mature cast delivers the kind of nuance to these characters which elucidates avenues we don’t often explore in Shakespeare’s works, and which makes one excited to age as an actor.

Takeaways:
More men need to listen to women.
You don’t need more than sound for effective representation of daunting stage directions (let’s be honest, Shakespeare was just trolling us with “Exit, pursued by a bear“), and it is right to focus on the emotions, rather than the gimmicks, in this story.
Women who stand up for themselves, and their true allies, stand to lose something substantial.
“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

Catch the show tonight at 7:30pm at John Cooper Studio, 41 Monkgate, York. Tickets available on the door or from York Theatre Royal.

You might like this if you like:
Dangerous Beauty

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Theatre Review: Pride & Prejudice at York Theatre Royal

Sara Pascoe’s riff on Austen’s most widely-loved novel is a reinterpretation aimed at those with a prejudice about the characters’ choices. The original story is present as the larger part of a jigsaw of meta modern interludes; a couple editing the story for film/TV, a class of Catherine Tate style schoolgirls being taught by Lizzie, a TED talk on love and Austen, and the actors in rehearsal for the play-within-the-play. The framework attempts to bring some quantifying commentary to the Bennett sisters’ unique range of feminisms in relation to love and marriage. It both directly provokes inane questions (“Can we make this feminist?”; “Can love as we know it exist in a time like this?”) and subsequently evokes more intelligent ones (“What exactly is it about Austen’s stories that make us swoon so?”)

Carla Goodman’s design sees the action taking place within a giant birdcage in front of a tarnished mirror, no doubt enhancing the emphasis on the societal trappings experienced by our protagonists, and their parallels to our modern situation, with notable blind spots.

It’s unclear what the juxtaposition truly adds to our current understanding of Pride and Prejudice. Given the novel’s standing in popular culture, the presumption of such a level of ignorance in the audience seems a bit of a misfire. With such a lauded source text, it’s important to note what’s new about this version.

The differences: Darcy (Matt Whitchurch) is such a scanty presence, and displays little, if any, quality for Lizzie (Bethan Mary-James) to fall for; indeed they have so little interaction that there is no chance for convincing “dynamism”, perhaps left out to enhance Pascoe’s point on the shallowness of love connections made in the era. The modern intercuts bring Austen’s work into the territory of a kind of time-travelling Love Actually. Self-aware songs arrive late into the action, proving somewhat trite and awkward despite Emmy The Great’s perfectly fitting scores elsewhere, including on Austenland, which inspires similar self-examination of our attraction to the world of AustenThese lyrics fall short of revelation, though there are some refreshing and satisfying moments including a song between Lizzie and JaneMary (played by the brilliant Rachel Partington) is mostly played up for comedic effect, transcending simple distaste for what she perceives as her sisters’ trivial interests, and presenting instead as neuroatypical. Mr and Mrs Bennett (played by Adrian Irvine and Kerry Peers respectively) have moments of tender connection not present in other adaptations, which is both moving and welcome.

What remains? Lizzie is a role model in exemplary female friendships. She shares poignant moments of unconditional support with Jane, Mary and Charlotte, making no judgments on their disparate choices, which is more than can be said of the writing. Lydia (Olivia Onyehara) is familiarly obnoxious and vivacious, while Bingley (Matthew Romain) is unfalteringly charming. Mary-James’s Lizzie is perfectly sardonic and removed in public; loyal and generous with her loved ones. The superb cast make the show thoroughly enjoyable, as do some playful touches such as dressmakers’ dummies making appearances in the dance scenes. We’ll all be voting for Dummy #1 and Wickham (Alex Sawyer) on the next season of Strictly. Other highlights include Romain’s Mr Collins, with his interminable sermons and severely misjudged compliments.

The verdict: Austen was successful enough a feminist pastiche artist, and we need to place more trust in her. If this production proves any point about her stories, it is that their cores are so strong that we can pretty much do anything we want with them, and they will still be great stories populated by entertaining characters.

The show runs until Saturday 14th October. Tickets are available from the York Theatre Royal box office or online at: https://goo.gl/9YBDh8
Check this out if you like: Austenland, Lost In Austen, Love Actually