The Winter’s Tale

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Shakespeare’s rarely performed play The Winter’s Tale is tragic and terrible in the first half, fantastical in the second, moving in fairytale fashion from jealousy and cruelty to love and forgiveness. Because of the stylistic disparity, it’s often considered one of his “problem” plays.

Out of the blue, for the flimsiest of reasons, a suddenly jealous King Leontes of Sicily (Myles Pollard) wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Helen Thomson) of adultery with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Dorian Nkono).

Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that their newborn daughter Perdita be abandoned. His young son Prince Mamillius (Rory Potter) and Hermione both die of heartbreak.

In the second half, set sixteen years later, order is magically restored and the characters are reconciled.

In this new production for Bell Shakespeare Company, director John Bell focuses his interpretation around Mamillius, presenting the play from the boy’s perspective. So, the first half is what really happens and the second half is what the boy – now a spiritual observer – wishes had happened and conjures with magic wand in hand.

It’s an interesting, intelligent idea, which Bell is able to explore without altering the text. He merely reallocates a few lines to Mamillius (the reading of the Delphic oracle and the description of Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, told using hand puppets).

However, the production doesn’t totally work, somewhat diminishing the horror of Leontes’ actions at the beginning and detracting a little from the moving reconciliation at the end.

The entire play is set in a child’s bedroom – though Stephen Curtis’s set looks more like a pretty nursery than a boy’s room with diaphanous white curtains, a wicker basinet for the impending baby, a white bunk bed on stilts, and a large mobile with stars and other pretty knick-knacks as well as a few macabre ones (a naked baby doll, a skeletal forearm) foreshadowing things to come. There are also a few boys’ toys (castle, lego, dinosaur, teddy bear) and a dress-up box.

Many scenes in the first act sit oddly in such a setting. Some of the audience laughed on opening night when Leontes sat on a toddler’s chair holding a toy sword as he pronounced his awful judgment on Hermione. It did make him seem somewhat crazed – which works on one level – but we should have been shuddering not laughing. Pollard was not able to cut through and bring quite enough menace to the situation.

Most of the second half is set in Bohemia, which is here given a kind of 60s hippy-trippy vibe, with the plot, colourful costumes and special effects emerging as if from Mamillius’s imagination and dress-up box.

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

There are some lovely moments. The famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is cleverly done – one of several neat effects using shadows – and Matthew Marshall’s many-hued lighting also adds lots of colour, emphasising mood swings.

There are a few changes to the mobile and some vibrantly bright costumes – but the idea of moving from cold, hard reality to Mamillius’s dream-world might have been more effective if the transformation in the set had been a little more dramatic perhaps.

Though the second half exudes a sense of joyousness, it labours under too much comedy that no longer strikes a chord today and does start to drag. (The production runs for three hours).

The acting is a little mixed. Pollard’s light voice and Aussie inflections don’t bring sufficient weight to the difficult role of Leontes and he isn’t totally convincing in either his fury or his anguish.

Thomson is moving as Hermione and Michelle Doake is in commanding form as Hermione’s fiercely loyal friend Paulina, delivering the language with great clarity. Both are also very funny as shepherdesses.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the production 13-year old Potter (who shares the role with Otis Pavlovich) gives yet another wonderfully subtle, touching performance as Mamillius, remarkable for one so young.

The Winter’s Tale runs until March 29. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 9

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Black Diggers

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 19

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The words “Lest We Forget” are movingly evoked at the end of Black Diggers but, in fact, this new Australian play is more about illuminating a little known part of Australian history – the role and treatment of around 800 Aboriginal diggers during World War I.

Sydney Festival is presenting the premiere of this important Queensland Theatre Company production written by Tom Wright and directed by Wesley Enoch to coincide with the centenary of the start of the Great War.

Drawing on verbatim and other source material held by the Australian War Memorial, with research by David Williams, Wright has created a script full of short scenes and little vignettes, punctuated by song, which come together powerfully to offer a shocking and moving insight into the subject.

We see why Aboriginal men joined up to serve a King and country that didn’t even class them as citizens, the camaraderie and friendships they forged with other Australian diggers in the trenches and on the battlefields where colour became irrelevant, and their dashed expectations as they returned home having enjoyed an equality they hadn’t previously known, only to find that nothing had changed in Australia.

As one of the characters so eloquently puts it: “They painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.”

Worse, many found that their own lands were taken away from them and given to other returned servicemen as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which Indigenous soldiers were ineligible to apply to. On top of that, many were ostracised by their own communities. And, of course, many suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enoch directs all this with a light touch, balancing the dark moments with a genial, knockabout humour, though never shying away from the tough themes.

The all-male Indigenous cast play a wide range of characters, black and white, and do a terrific job of delineating them all, sometimes in very brief cameos.

Featuring George Bostock, Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tibian Wyles and Meyne Wyatt, some of the cast are more assured as performers than others but they work together as a strong ensemble and all deserve praise.

Stephen Curtis’s clever set (dramatically lit by Ben Hughes) works on both a practical and metaphorical level. Black walls frame a black stage with a raised central platform and a fire in an oil drum to one side. As the play progresses, the names and dates of soldiers and the battles they fought in are chalked on the walls until they have become covered in white – symbolic of the whitewashing of the Indigenous diggers’ role in our history. Finally, having filled in this gap in our knowledge, the cast wipe away some of the white to spell out the words “Lest We Forget”.

Running around 100-minutes without interval, Black Diggers is a compelling piece of theatre. It tells an important story but does so without hectoring or lecturing, moving us instead to laughter and tears. It deserves to be seen widely.

Black Diggers plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 26. Bookings: 9250 7777 or sydneyfestival.org.au

Henry 4 review

Henry 4 review

Bell Shakespeare Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

John Bell’s DNA is all over Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Henry 4. He co-directs with Damien Ryan, using the adaptation he did for the company in 1998 with a few small revisions, on top of which he turns in a marvellous performance as Falstaff.

Distilling Shakespeare’s two plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into one play, Bell removes a lot of the politics and sub-plots to focus on the triangular relationship between Henry IV and his dissipated son Prince Hal, and between Hal and his surrogate father Falstaff, the old reprobate who is leading him astray.

Henry4_Arky-Felix-Yalin-Matthew-John-Terry-Wendy_©Lisa Tomasetti-8839.jpg

Arky Michael, Yalin Ozucelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Terry Bader, Wendy Strehlow. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The contemporary production is staged on Stephen Curtis’ gritty, industrial set with a shipping container, jukebox and a wall of milk crates, which is partially destroyed in a riotous prelude to the play.

The colourful, streetwise vibe is reflected in the costumes (jeans, beanies and hoodies for the characters in the tavern scenes; suits for the court) along with other touches like tasers, prissy German tourists, a hapless football team, a bike courier and a mad Scotsman whose aggressive drum playing is reminiscent of Animal in The Muppets. Some of these feel like a bit of a cheap laugh but had the audience chortling delightedly.

The score meanwhile includes Queen’s We Are the Champions and London’s Calling by The Clash.

The production is robustly physical, snappily paced and very clear in its storytelling even if the musicality of the language suffers a little now and then. The comic scenes featuring Falstaff and his motley, lowlife crew are more successful than the serious scenes at court and on the battlefield, though David Whitney is in commanding form as the fiercely sharp-tempered Henry IV, who is all too aware of his fragile hold on the crown. His portrayal of the King’s descent into illness is also beautifully judged.

Bell’s Falstaff is a joy. Sporting a fat suit, ruddy cheeks and straggly, grey hair, and dressed as an aging bikie, he revels in the portly knight’s drunken vulgarity, masterfully delivering his slippery wit in a hilarious performance that also has its moments of poignancy.

Hal is not a particularly likeable character but Matthew Moore manages to make him relatively sympathetic. However, his delivery of the language is a little one-note, which works against Hal’s transformation to heroic prince.

Among a solid ensemble Sean O’Shea is extremely funny as Justice Shallow, playing him as a doddery harry high pants, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones is a wonderfully suave Westmoreland.

All in all, Henry 4 is a very entertaining version of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Ends May 26.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 28.