Propeller offer a refreshing take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in their adaptation shown at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Despite being an all-male cast, the company manage to contemporise the Shakespearean classic through costume, scenery and music whilst remaining faithful to the original plot.
The first half of the play revels in the dark emotional intricacies of mistrust, jealousy and loss in Leontes’ court, and the acting, especially of Robert Hands (Leontes) and Vince Leigh (Paulina), deserves special recognition for its believability, and the sensitivity that each actor has to their role. The tone after the interval is markedly different. Bohemia is represented through live music courtesy of a group of singing sheep, named the Bleatles (cheap puns intended), and bouts of mild nudity which have the audience in hysterics.
The contemporary take on the play’s comical scenes achieves more than cheap laughs. Dualities and contradictions, as exemplified in the line “There was speech in their dumbness”, are rife within the play, and manipulated by Propeller throughout. Sound is contrasted with silence, light with dark, tragedy with comedy, all of which work to unsettle the audience and serve as a constant reminder of the fragility of the human condition, and the depth and richness of the play. The jarring gap between the poignancy of the revelation of the living Hermione in the play’s closing scene, with the lively joviality and bawdy humour of the Shepherd’s feast is a prime example of this unsettling incongruity.
The creation of music and sounds by the actors themselves is another rewarding feature of the play. In addition to the Bleatles drum kit and guitars in Bohemia, Leontes’ court also hosts a grand piano. Yet, it is the cleverly manipulated eerie sound created by the actors circling the rims of glasses of water which serves as an effective leitmotif in the play, and deserves praise for its originality.
The adaptation takes the audience on a memorable journey which manages to balance the Shakespearean classic with singing sheep, and yet retains its poignancy and delicacy. Propeller’s clever use of props and music, in addition to the excellent acting of their all-male cast, makes this reworking of The Winter’s Tale highly original, distancing Propeller from other Shakespeare companies performing the same play.