Power hour: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, The Hermes Experiment at Tête à Tête

The Winter’s Tale is surely one of Shakespeare’s cruellest tragedies: Leontes’ mistaken, yet unshakeable jealousy destroys family bonds and friendships alike, culminating in blasphemy as he refuses to accept the Oracle of Apollo which exonerates his blameless wife. Even the eventual restoration of his wife and daughter, an earthly miracle achieved only by the courage of the free-willed and fearless Paulina (a stylish, spirited portrayal from Louisa Hollway), is full of pain; such joy comes at a terrible price. As we begin to be more open in our social discourse about mental health, this parable of a breakdown, its catastrophic effects, his slow rehabilitation and final, precious second chance feels immensely relevant. Sadly, in real life, there are very few Paulinas to protect the vulnerable: above all, Paulina protects Leontes from himself, shielding him in reality from the worst consequences of his own actions, though allowing him to feel them fully so as to provoke his eventual remorse, and recovery.

Director Nina Brazier’s edited version, cutting the action down to a single hour, compresses and consolidates the tragedy, producing a searingly intense treatment which tears at the heart. Leontes’ vehement error wreaks unstoppable havoc in his life, and his mistaken edicts (and the dead bodies they create) rattle out so fast that we feel irrevocably drawn inside his unfathomable spiral of destructive behaviour. Exceptionally simple staging, with some small bunches of wheat and flowers at the back of the stage to give a suggestion of scenery, leaves plenty of space for the actors to realise Brazier’s dynamic, physically driven production, which includes dance and realistic fight scenes.  The cleverest touch is representing the baby Perdita with a bundled-up shawl; as this is ‘delivered’ on stage, passed reverently, crooned over with lullabies and abandoned, we believe it to be a baby, but when soprano Héloïse Werner finally unfurls the shawl and wraps it around her shoulders, we realise she is now Perdita fully grown. Economic, elegant and effective.

Winters Tale Paulina Hermione and soprano

Louisa Hollway (Paulina), Sadie Parsons (Hermione), and soprano Héloïse Werner, later Perdita. Photography by Claire Shovelton

Music by Kim Ashton is interwoven throughout the piece, adding textures to Shakespeare’s language: we get chanting, panting, hissing and gasping sounds which sometimes echo or deconstruct spoken words or consonants, or wordless singing and evocative chords to signal tension and fear. Ashton’s innovative score takes a hands-on approach to the instruments: thunderous finger drumming on the wood of the harp (Anne Denholm) or double bass (Marianne Schofield), a bow taken to the harp strings, plenty of pizzicato. When Werner steps forward to become Perdita, clarinettist Oliver Pashley plays Florizel, while the harp and double bass are also integrated in the action, though their size makes them necessarily more static on stage. The music certainly heightens the drama, and often helps to make the force of Shakespeare’s words even more immediate; while the result doesn’t feel like opera, it certainly feels like a successful, sensitive forging of music and drama.

Winters Tale group

The Hermes Experiment’s The Winter’s Tale in action. Photography by Claire Shovelton

Robert Willoughby’s charismatic and sensually charged Polixenes, and delightfully camp First Gentleman, each with beautifully controlled gesture, are dramatic contributions of the highest standard. Likewise, Christopher Adams excels as Camillo, also playing Mamillius, Antigonus and the Second Gentleman with skilful clarity, moving from child to man with confident flair. Our leading couple, William McGeough as Leontes and Sadie Parsons as Hermione, both suffered initially from a shaky start, but quickly found their focus and went on to produce affecting performances, McGeough’s irrational anger (and subsequent savage grief) feeling impressively real, while Parsons’ Hermione was imbued with graceful innocence and noble moral fire. By the end, the tears were streaming down my face, not least thanks to Louisa Hollway’s wise, brave and inspiringly clear-sighted Paulina.

Winters Tale Paulina, Leontes, Perdita

Louisa Hollway (Paulina), William McGeough (Leontes), and soprano Héloïse Werner, later Perdita. Photography by Claire Shovelton

Presented by The Hermes Experiment as part of the Tête à Tête Festival

Rating: 4 stars

Reviewed at RADA on Friday 11 August 2017

Winters Tale Hermione

Sadie Parsons (Hermione). Photography by Claire Shovelton

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