A Winter’s Tale
Common Ground Touring Theatre, dir. by Hannah Davies and Tom Cornford, Friargate Theatre, York, 11 March 2014.
Review by Sarah Olive
I had spent the day of this performance writing about oral history interviews on Shakespearean theatre as a ‘people’s critique’ worthy of sustained, scholarly attention in performance history. Then two of my department’s PhD students cajoled me into attending A Winter’s Tale in the evening – a nice inversion of usual teacher/student behaviour. In fact, I already knew about the production and had exploited the (dubiously?) democratising but increasingly popular social medium, Twitter, to share news of it with my undergraduate followers. It turned out that issues of equality, democracy and the popular had also been on the minds’ of the well-named ensemble, Common Ground: writer Hannah Davies, co-directors Hannah and Tom Cornford and the actor-musicians of A Winter’s Tale.
Four actors, two male, two female – a split deliberately chosen to rebalance the gender distribution (or lack thereof) usually observed in a Shakespearean production – carved up a host of, predominantly male, characters with apparent ease (though the actors’ distress at the prospect of rapidly switching between roles was occasionally feigned). The playing space, sparsely but professionally lit and viewed from five rows of raked seating, accommodated a minimal and highly flexible set of two black, moveable boxes, a ladder and props table. Costumes were boiler suits in different muted shades for each actor – dirty white, brown, blue and green. The actors customised these from the props table as necessary, with minimal fuss: a pregnancy ‘bump’ and flower headband for Hermione (Sarah Davies), sash for Polixenes (Jonny Neaves), clutch of medals for Leontes (Mark Edwards), and headscarf for Paulina (Rebecca Beattie). In a spirit reminiscent of the interviews with Theatre Workshop founding artists I had spent the day reading, Tom Cornford remarked post-show on the directors’ reluctance to lavish money on set and costumes, particularly ones which need to be so portable and versatile, rather than using it to price the shows accessibly while paying for the labour of those involved.
In relation to the cutting and adaptation of the Shakespearean play-text, the writers deliberately avoided the tendency to preserve high-status characters’ scenes (revealed in the post-show questions and answer session). Instead, the production positively embraced and incorporated the figure of the ballad-pedlar and ace story-teller found in Autolycus (Sarah Davis – who also composed the production’s music) into an over-arching framework. Other parts of the play, such as the reconciliation between Sicilia and Bohemia and the final confirmation of Perdita’s true identity, were abbreviated by having the actors recount the bits of plot like colleagues chattily dissecting a day’s triumphs and disasters over after-work drinks. Chunks of dialogue were glossed in modern, slangy English through interpolations from another actor to help us until we got our ‘ears tuned in’ – enabling certain ‘difficult’ scenes to be kept while directly addressing an early/modern language barrier. Leontes’, literally – where the actor is concerned, long-winded, ‘pompous’ soliloquies, enraged and (as often played) ear-splitting rants, were turned into songs or soft, manically garbled ramblings into a Dictaphone. His ravings were played back to him using the Dictaphone and a loudspeaker as he cringed and squirmed at the foot of Hermione and Mamillius’ tomb, as though his past words were producing an unescapable din inside his head. The vast range of strategies for delivering the play’s text kept the audience engaged without jeopardising, indeed arguably enhancing, the plot’s flow.
The show spoke back to Shakespeare, and stereotypes of Shakespearean critics, and Shakespeare snobs, on multiple occasions. The actor playing Perdita (Rebecca Beattie) paused, and momentarily ‘left’, the play to remonstrate with Shakespeare’s script about whether or not her character, a shepherd girl, ought to feel ashamed to love a prince. Similarly, Mamillius’ (Rebecca Beattie) notion that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter’ was debated by two of the actors. One introduced the notion of ‘catharsis’ as a trump card in his argument for the motion, only to be mocked by his fellow at not being able to name the author of the concept. Furthermore, this tour of A Winter’s Tale has taken an elite cultural product and played it in pubs, regional theatres, and intimate arts centre venues with Yorkshire accents, dialect and spilt drinks abounding.
Another way in which the production found a genuine rapport with the audience was through its popular culture references. English folk traditions were celebrated through music, song and the interval announcement from the female Autolycus that ‘we’re just off to wet the [newly discovered] baby’s head’, and the invitation to ‘join us’. Latter day popular culture got a look in through the use of action men and Barbie dolls in a puppet show; Camillo (Jonny Neaves – also the production’s lead musician) phoning a job agency for another ‘courtly advisor’ situation when disillusioned with his tyrant king’s increasingly diabolical requests; David Attenborough-style voice-overs introducing us to the two contrasting habitats, palatial court and rurally impoverished, of Bohemia; for the musically-minded there were snatches of Bjork, punk and a ‘Teddy Bears’ picnic’ prelude to the bear-snatching of Antigonus (Jonny Neaves) to recognise.
Finally, as revealed in the question and answer session, the play was produced with the values discussed above at the core of the process. Inspiration for the production was found not in ‘grand’ theatrical traditions but in the George and the Dragon plays once commonly held outside English pubs. Additionally, the writing of the script and score ran largely alongside rehearsals, with the writer sometimes scribing actors’ speech, sometimes scripting their lines. And was it a popular success with the, albeit rather small, audience that filled this attic-like space? Was the ‘people’s critique’ a positive one? Had common ground been found between Shakespeare’s play, the company, the audience and their lives? As far as I can tell from the applause, feedback and plaudits freely given to cast & directors post-show, yes.