Henry V/The Winter’s Tale, Propeller Theatre Company

Edward Hall’s Propeller company announced its 2012 tour as consisting of “a brand new production of Henry V and a re-visiting of our acclaimed 2005 production of The Winter’s Tale”. Correct in the second part, incorrect in the first. The company’s first-ever all-male Shakespeare in 1997 may have been a semi-promenade staging in the auditorium and gardens of the Watermill near Newbury, but to all intents and purposes the Henry V I saw last week onstage at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham was the same production.

It features the same modern military fatigues and lusty singing (in effect the Propeller house style for the more martial history plays), and the same bewildering choice of an English army belting out The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes”; the same bushels of tennis balls emptied on to the stage as the French Dauphin sends his contemptuous reply to King Henry’s Gallic claims; the very same Chris Myles performing bilingually, as the Earl of Exeter and the French Princess Katherine’s maid Alice.

The production also includes a similarly unengaging King. Fifteen years ago I wondered whether “this feeling of constant calculation is attributable to the character or the actor” (then Jamie Glover), but Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s current performance indicates that it is a staging decision, so that not even his disguised journey through the English camp on the eve of Agincourt, indeed not even his soliloquy in this sequence, shows us a sympathetic, human king. Perhaps this is the intention: to purvey the vigour and exhilaration of the military expedition but allow us, when we look beyond the moment, to see that it is hollow.

I did not see this Winter’s Tale on its first outing, so can make no such comparisons; I simply report that it excellently hits all the play’s notes of royal and domestic tragedy, rustic comedy and sentimental wonderment. Robert Hands’s Leontes is unreasonable but never psychopathic in his jealousy; the all-male set-up means that Ben Allen can double his roles and so suggest that the young prince Mamillius lives again in his lost sister Perdita. Richard Dempsey doubles too, as a dignified Queen Hermione and a most indecorous shepherdess Dorcas. Tony Bell delivers the rogue Autolycus’s patter at the sheep-shearing festival to the backing of an ad-hoc band, “The Bleatles”.

Vince Leigh has perhaps the most radically diverse casting across the pair of shows, following up the bombastic Pistol in Henry V with the plain-speaking yet not unmerciful Paulina in The Winter’s Tale; Leigh is so tall and robust that when Hands’s Leontes collapses following the realisation of his jealous foolishness, he seems even slighter physically when supported offstage by this Paulina. Leontes, in turn, seems later rejuvenated by the arrival of the young lovers from Bohemia even before he learns that one of them is his long-lost daughter.

The productions tour through May and arrive at Hall’s London base, the Hampstead Theatre, in July; however, only The Winter’s Tale plays this week in Sheffield.


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