The Winter’s Tale, directed by Elise Davison for Taking Flight Theatre Company at Blaise Castle, Bristol. 25 July 2015
Reviewed by Evelyn O’Malley
I attended Taking Flight’s The Winter’s Tale at Blaise Castle, towards the end of its run and towards the end of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival. The promenade performance began on a warm and windy night outside the Blaise Castle museum in Sicilia—a city jazz club—and moved around the park for scenes in Bohemia, elegantly integrating sign-language, audio-description, songs, and Shakespeare into the action.
From the outset, Becky Kemp Davies’s stylish and anarchic costumes and design set the tone. Davies’ designs, indeed, arguably set Taking Flight’s work apart from much other outdoor work, in terms of its high production values and attention to detail. Blue fabrics indicated Sicilia; yellows and golds were added for Bohemia. Fluffy sheep on the shepherdesses’ silky skirts, stringy beard disguises, and a lampshade gramophone head-dress for Time were quirky and surprising. I could imagine how a touch-tour of this inclusive and textured performance—incorporating fur, wools, sequins, lace, cotton, heavy walking boots and conical hats—might offer clear characterizations that would facilitate a tactile experience of the play.
Via mobile head-set, I tuned into Alistair Sill’s—‘the royal audio-describer’s—live and lively audio description. As Sill ran around the park, singing, acting and playing musical instruments, he also verbalised the action, engaging in a personal dialogue with his listener. The cast of ten played multiple musical instruments: Polixines (Jon Kidd) played a long trombone, suggestively interrupting Hermione (Chloe Clarke) and Leontes (Sam Bees) in one of the early scenes and providing some motivation for Leontes’ jealousy; a painted grand piano with a bicycle wheel for a front leg enabled the actors to move their band from one side of the park to another; shepherdesses bickered in a memorable kazoo fight; and Mamillius was represented by a ukulele body, trumpet face and drum-stick arms. I also counted banjo, drums, cello, accordion and flute, played to accompany the many songs that replaced speeches.
Hermione’s testimony was sung into a 1950s microphone, her lines about being rushed to trial ‘i’th’open-air’ (3, 2, 104) resonant and powerful in the wind at Blaise. The much-anticipated exit pursued by a bear saw Antiginous (Ben Goffe), sing and dance a tango with the bear—played by one actor sitting on another’s shoulders, wielding huge padded paws—before his too-early departure from the play. Another memorable but more serious exit came from Nicola Miles-Wildin as Paulina as she left Leontes with the baby Perdita. Wilden departed in her mechanised wheelchair, speaking, ‘Look to your babe, my lord; ’tis yours: Jove send her a better guiding spirit!’ (2, 3, 125-126), and maintaining eye contact as she exited the stage area with grace and poise.
Taking Flight’s celebration of difference and their challenge to perceptions of ability and disability was playfully incorporated into the performance. This was perhaps best exemplified in an exchange during the Bohemia sheep-shearing. Perdita (Amelia Cavallo), and the disguised Camillo (Stephen Collins), reached a hiatus as they attempted to communicate. Collins had performed solely in sign-language to this point and Cavallo’s blindness meant that she couldn’t understand him. We had apparently reached a full stop. Audio-describer Sill attempted to explain the muddle to the audience; ‘The man who is not Camillo is signing’. But Cavallo responded with; ‘That doesn’t help me, I’m blind’. All three turned to further cast member for help; ‘Don’t look at me, I’m only Level 1 [British Sign Language]’. Finally, attention shifted to Sami Thorpe, whose sign-language was integrated into the performance. Thorpe, could, but wasn’t meant to, speak, but helped ensuring everyone in the scene knew what was going on. The point, subtly and creatively made, seemed to be that inclusive communication is possible with effort, care and a sense of humour.
There was also something quietly enabling in this promenade performance that wasn’t too heavy-handed in its manoeuvring of the audience. There was no desperate gesticulation, waving or pointing from the actors as they encouraged the audience to move; only subtle adjustments to scenes when our gathering perhaps failed to move as expected. Given only gentle instructions, the audience slowly adjusted to the idea of moving around the space—some more enthusiastically than others. By the end of the evening, our tentative and fumbled beginnings at ‘promenading’ had grown in confidence and togetherness. Our final journey together, to see Hermione’s statue under a huge pine tree, was executed with relative assertiveness, cohesion and speed.
Nothing was tentative about this witty and inventive performance, which managed to find often unusual and surprisingly fresh moments of disjuncture, humour and pathos in Shakespeare’s familiar text.