The Winter’s Tale

Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Chess

The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Cinderella

We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

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The Winter’s Tale

14/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter’s Tale is famously a play of two halves, and Max Webster’s production for the Lyceum exaggerates and develops this juxtaposition in every possible way – and the result is thrilling.

This is an modern-day version of the play: ‘Sicilia’ is now Edinburgh; ‘Bohemia’ is Fife. Although Leontes (John Michie) and Polixenes (Andy Clark) are still ostensibly ‘kings’, they are presented more as middle-class business men, rich and successful, with teams of staff assisting them. The set design helps to cement the contrasts between them: Leontes’ apartment, slightly raised and framed in black, looks exactly like the glass boxes lining Edinburgh’s Quartermile; a walled-off sound-booth reinforces this image. It’s an inspired idea: those apartments look like stage-sets anyway, their fourth walls removed to allow us to peep in. And they are sterile and hard, seemingly perfect but ultimately lacking – just like Leontes’ relationship with Hermione (Frances Grey). The pastoral scenes, on the other hand, are deliberately hokey. The fake grass is rolled out before us: there is no attempt at realism here. The props are more panto than serious Shakespeare, all bright-bunting and shopping trolleys and rickety wooden stuff. The costumes  all look hand-made, in a local am-dram kind of way. It’s hard to imagine we’re watching the same play. Polixenes  is a big fish here, but he’s in a very different kind of pond.

The contrasts are further underlined by both dialogue and acting style. While acts one, two, three and five retain Shakespeare’s original language, act four has been recast in Scots, an audacious undertaking performed with evident delight by writer James Robertson. The performances are mismatched too: whereas the Sicilian scenes are very serious and actorly, the Bohemian scenes are played for laughs, with comedic exaggeration and audience interaction; it’s beautifully done.

If I’ve a criticism of this play – and I haven’t much – it’s that the fayre goes on too long, without adding much to the plot. It is a lovely interlude, and the scene-setting is vital, but it starts to drag after a while: we want to know what happens next.

The performances here are universally strong, but Maureen Beattie’s Paulina is a definite stand-out; she imbues the character with warmth, vitality and strength. The musicians, led by composer Alasdair Macrae, deserve a mention too: their on-stage accompaniment is integral to the story-telling, and their presence adds a strange unearthliness that really elevates the play.

Do get yourself along to the Lyceum to see this: it’s really rather wonderful.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Winter’s Tale

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Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening

26/11/15

The Winter’s Tale is something of a curiosity, the work, it seems, of a playwright who was still experimenting even as he neared the end of his career. Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale contains romance as well as realism, and attempts to fuse the yin and yang of theatre, encompassing both comedy and tragedy. And, although this play is arguably more uneven than The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, a delight to watch, particularly when performed and directed with such poise.

Live cinema screenings are a godsend to those of us who don’t live in London, allowing us access to plays we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But the format does have its limitations, most notable in this production in the lighting. Presumably the audience at the Garrick could see perfectly well, but the low lighting didn’t translate well to the big screen, making the whole of the first half rather difficult to discern; indeed, even the lighter, brighter second half seemed curiously muted, considering its lively and pastoral nature.

This aside, the production worked well. Branagh’s is a traditional interpretation of the play, performed with scholarly precision rather than flights of fancy, playing to the strengths of its distinguished cast and crew. Judi Dench is a fine Paulina – of course she is – and Branagh (equally predictably) makes a convincing Leontes. The contrasts – between town and country, prince and pauper, repression and ebullience – are all writ large, and there’s both charm and energy aplenty here.

Why then am I sighing or shrugging when people ask me what I thought of this? I suppose it just seems like I’ve seen it all before: this is a proficient and assured production, but there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s done. Maybe there doesn’t need to be; I’m sure there are many theatre-goers who would see this as a positive and, certainly, I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. Still, it all feels just a little too familiar to stir enthusiasm.

A good production, but not a thrilling one.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield