The Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company is the real deal. I shamefully never got to any of the student productions at my native Imperial College, so I ignorantly assumed that University productions would be more akin to school plays than serious theatre.
Paul Brotherston and Theodora Cadbury contribute some magnificent directing – that would certainly rival anything produced by a more experienced company down in London – which is even more laudable considering the pair are very new to producing Shakespeare. Stage manager Ellen Glendhill and the team of designers created a beautiful set, with a miscellany of lacquered wardrobes doubling as various exits, entrances and hiding places. The lighting brought it all to life, managing to create mood changes from morose to merry at a change of a scene.
Like any play of its length – almost four hours – there were lulls, sometimes brought about the action happening a little too far back on stage and a few muffled voices. But sometimes it was the play itself. The Winter’s Tale is really two plays in one. The first half tragedy, the second half comedy. The latter chunk takes place in a different place, in a different time, with almost a different cast and recalls the bucolic ebullience of As You Like It, whereas the first half brings back memories of Othello’s wrought machinations.
While the second half was definitely easier to engage with, thanks to songs, pranks and music, the first half gave a few star actors the chance to shine. Leontes – who drives his wife Hermione away supposing himself a cuckhold – is played by freshman Frank Kerr with all the skill, polish and immersion of a drama school graduate. And what a gorgeous voice! The last Leontes I watched was Simon Russell Beale – a virtual opposite in age, looks and stature. Kerr gives the character a more malign and tortured feel: it would be hard to pick a favourite out of the two.
Alexandra Wetherell as Hermione is elegant and remarkably strong.
She switches from the smiling and charming wife to the grief-ridden and traumatised ex-wife effortlessly and conveys the character’s pain – dressed in a blood-splattered dress – near-perfectly. One doesn’t need a wild imagination to picture Alexandra on stage at The Globe or with the RSC in future.
While Camillo may be a supporting character, and an unassuming one at that, David K Barnes with his quivering hand, gives a note-worthy portrayal and arouses much laughter.
As it would have been in the day, it is the peasant folk who get the biggest smiles. Thick Scotch accents replace the English bumpkin ones used in many of the Bard’s Comedies south of the border, and the songs are given a hillbilly makeover. Connor Jones is wonderful as the Shepherd who takes into his care the abandoned Perdita – daughter of Hermione and Leontes – as is his son, played by Billy Watt (who reminded me ever so slightly of David Tennant).
Star of the comedy and most certainly star in the making is Martin MacLennan who was every bit the comic crook Autolycus. Maclennan has the right dose of Mark Rylance swagger and crude cockiness that threatens to, and often does, steal the limelight during his scenes as he switches between strumming his guitar and cajoling dimwitted clowns. I envy anyone who gets to see his next performance as Van Helsing in Dracula at the end of March at Bedlam Theatre, which will also star Alexandra Wetherell.
Special mention must also go to Venice Van Someren, who plays the pajama clad and teddy-bear clutching son of the doomed couple and is on stage throughout the entire play, watching everything unfold, adding a splash of narration from time to time.
If I were to split hairs, the few aspects I would criticise include the positioning of the players in first half. As well as the previously mentioned positioning on stage and quiet voices, at the start it took the cast a little while to create a discernible chemistry to hold everything together. And there were times when, perhaps, a little less dry ice would have sufficed.
The whole cast give tremendous passion and whole-heartedness, while obviously enjoying every moment. The EUSC have not cut corners by choosing a familiar and well-trodden work to tackle – they have dared for the different, delivered and surpassed expectations.