Staging The Winter’s Tale in the middle of the summer might seem to be an unusual choice, but as we huddled in the wind blasted Brighton Open Air Theatre it seemed pathetic fallacy was on our side as we prepared to watch the drama unfold.
A fresh take on this old and implausible fairy tale
The performance opened with the entire cast dancing robotically to an originial tune, written by composer Alex Scott, which was reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express. Unfortunately, the dance’s rigid movements foreshadowed the rest of the first act. Perhaps interpreting Shakespeare’s Sicilia as a military based society inspired by the German Democratic Republic didn’t help matters, but the first half felt stiff and unyielding, with the actors physically constrained onstage by long periods of standing to attention.
Scott Ellis presented a fair portrayal of the troubled Leontes driven mad by unfounded jealousy, but the first act felt laboured; his anguish never seemed to be strong enough to move towards its murderous conclusion. The windy weather added an additional challenge. The cast ably battled against their voices drifting away in the extreme wind, but the necessary shouting made it difficult to add nuance and emotion to the barked out dialogue.
The much needed dramatic tension didn’t appear until Hermione’s trial. However, from that point onwards proceedings began to loosen up. Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction – Exit, pursued by a bear – could easily have been tragic, as Antigonus meets his gruesome end. Instead, he was chased off stage by a bear that clumsily tumbled across the stage. The production then revelled in the macabre humour of the scene as Antigonus’ limbs were tossed onto stage bit by bit.
After a protracted first act, the fun started once we entered the relaxed and carefree hippy paradise of Bohemia. Here the bold 1970s style crocheted costumes, designed by Robin Soutar, combined with the subtle yet effective lighting design, brought warmth and life to the sunny Bohemian shores. As the vulgar and mischievous rogue Autolycus, Beth Mullen delivered the most laughs. She audaciously picked her way through the audience, pausing only to pinch away someone’s snack before launching into another double entendre filled speech. Including some ABBA riffs into this Bohemian section introduced more light heartedness and supporting actor Layomi Coker’s strong vocal performance shone through.
Despite the slow pace of scenes in Sicilia, once we got to Bohemia it was an enjoyable and entertaining show and the additional dialogue raised plenty of laughs. Changeling Theatre is clearly a talented collective and have invested a lot of creativity into delivering a fresh take on this old and implausible fairy tale. However, as a company specialising in outdoor performances, Changeling Theatre must understand the trials and tribulations of such settings. Yet the choice of the notoriously difficult The Winter’s Tale, filled as it is with lengthy monologues and little physical action in the first half, might have proved to be too much of a challenge in this windswept amphitheatre.