Two-tale treat

The Winter’s Tale (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 24 – September 9

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Winter may not really have made it to Brisbane this year, but its tale is being told at Roma Street Parklands in 2017’s Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s later and most problematic works, grown out of the anthology of his preceding plays.

Rather than offering a seasonal suggestion, however, the title, “The Winter’s Tale” insinuates a fairy tale of the old wives’ sort. And while it is grouped among Shakespeare’s comedies, its second act happy ending comes after a first act of psychological drama as a family is torn apart when a beloved King turns into a jealous monster, setting in motion a series of events that forever changes the lives of everyone he loves. The result is a tragi-comedy about forgiveness in which redemption is available to all and everyone gets to live.

By Shakespeare standards, it is a relatively simple story. Leontes, King of Sicily (Rob Pensalfini) is consumed by jealousy that Queen Hermione (Paige Poulier) is pregnant by his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (an under-used Silvan Rus). Protestations of their innocence only deepen his conviction and Leontes orders the faithful Camillo (Liliana Macarone) to kill Polixenes. Instead, Camillo and Polixenes escape to Bohemia as Leontes banishes Hermione to a dungeon where she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita who is taken away and abandoned to die. Leonates later repents and Perdita (Meghan Bowden) returns, having been saved and raised by a passing shepherd.

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Presented by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the show is full of Shakespearen traditions. There’s audience acknowledgement, bawdy bits and the arrival of a ‘letter’ to save the day, even if in this instance the Oracle’s rule to Leontes that Hermoine is innocent and her daughter is his, goes ignored. Costumes are intricate and interesting in their detail and lighting adds layers to the already-unique parkland open-air aesthetic. With the audience seated around the action on the park’s amphitheatre’s stage, there is opportunity to make use of the area’s banked seating as an additional performance space and action sometimes spills from the stage. This works well, even if the accompanying sound effects sometimes distract more than enhance, in competition with modest voice projections. There is certainly a lot happening throughout the production, including pre-show and at interval where the multi-talented cast perform live music.

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One of the most wonderful things about seeing a Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble show, is hearing familiar Shakespearean phrases brought to life by a uniformly-excellent cast. “The Winter’s Tale” offers no exception; words are enunciated clearly and verse is delivered beautifully. Pensalfini is strong as the obstinate King Leontes, though his latter repentance is somewhat too subtle. And Paige Poulier is excellent as Hermoine, delivering a memorable, dignified appeal to Leontes’ conscience and plea for mercy. Her passionate delivery is maturely muted with a rationality and integrity that contrasts Leontes’ irrational jealousy and sets Hermoine apart from more meek Shakespearean heroines of the Desdemona sort.

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Despite only being present for brief scenes in the play, Rebecca Murphy also adds interest through her compelling depiction as the noblewoman Paulina. Unrelenting in her condemnation, she is the only one who can talk back to the King, and she does, fiercely defending the ‘sweet’st, dear’st creature’ Hermione’s virtue in call-out of his ‘gross and foolish’ decisions. In this moving scene, which sees Paulina bringing the baby Perdita to Leontes and pleading with him to look at the child and realise it is indeed his daughter, her Paulina is strong and determined, revealing no weaknesses that might undermine her arguments against injustice. And at the other extreme, Chris Vaag is as comically charming as ever, this time as the roguish wandering minstrel-pickpocket vagabond Autolycus.

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While the skilled cast carry the play along and produce some fine moments, it is a long night and, at times, it feels like it, especially after the switch between the story’s disparate halves. It is frustrating too that the script calls for things to happen offstage to be descripted by someone onstage, beyond its famous ‘exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction preceeding the offstage death of Antigonu.

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Previous productions show that QSE are at their best in presentation of the tradition of Shakespearean comedy and although its themes are more pastoral, “The Winter’s Tale” is illustration of this above all else. Whether courtesy of physicality, exaggeration or passive aggressive insults, its latter half crams in as much comedy as possible, which in some way counteracts the dissatisfaction of its all-is-forgiven ending.  Certainly, “The Winter’s Tale” has much to offer audiences, including opportunity to add a seldom-performed play to their Shakespearean repertoire. And that makes it a treat worth seeing… even if it is sans bear.

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