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The ultimate fireside tale

Heather Neill previews Edward Hall's all-male production of The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale By William Shakespeare Propeller Company The Watermill, Newbury until March 19

"A winter's tale" was a familiar term in Shakespeare's day. Edward Hall, directing his all-male Propeller Company, says: "It was a well-known phrase for a good story by the fire on a long cold night. But the play is called The Winter's Tale: this is the ultimate one, containing many aspects of myth and fairytale."

Mamillius, the small son of Leontes, king of Sicilia, whispers his own tale in the ear of his mother, Hermione. Edward Hall shows much of the story through Mamillius's eyes. The boy dies quite early in the proceedings, but re-emerges in this production in the characters of Time and of his sister, Perdita.

The great happiness of the ending, as Leontes is reunited with his wife and daughter after 16 years, is mixed with sadness: Mamillius died too young and, says Hall, "you can't rewrite history, so the last thing Leontes sees at the end is the ghost of his little boy."

The story of the apparently happily married king who suddenly becomes jealous of an imagined relationship between his wife and his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, contains magical elements - an oracle, a living "statue", and that famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear."

Ordered to murder the daughter Leontes believes not to be his, Antigonus takes the baby to Bohemia, where he is shipwrecked and killed by a bear.

Hall has hit on an inventive way of staging these events: "It is part of Mamillius's imagination. He uses little figures to show the bear, so we go from puppet scale to actual size. It is completely theatrical, but as awful as it ought to be. We have a shipwreck too."

The baby, Perdita, is rescued by shepherds: "They are in danger of being comic for the wrong reasons; their integrity is important. The young shepherd has an innocence which is almost biblical. It is not stupidity."

For Hall, the court and rustic society are equally complex, but the countryfolk "don't suffer from corruption that sophistication can bring".

The crucial point when Leontes suddenly expresses jealousy is, says Hall, "such a surprising moment. There is no earlier subtext of anxiety. Leontes is conscious of a physical affliction: Shakespeare is very careful to make him conscious that something out of the ordinary is happening to him.

Whereas in Othello there are lots of motives, here Shakespeare has decided to deal with the irrational feeling of jealousy."

"Everything in the play is from a male perspective: Hermione is fiercely loyal and honourable to the end. Polixenes and Leontes are inseparable friends and Hermione has to work hard to keep a feminine sensitivity alive in a 'blokey' court." Paulina, wife of Antigonus and fierce defender of Hermione, seems a modern female character. Like all the others, she is played here by a man. Hall says: "He gets the male aggressive and combative side for free and has to work on the femininity, the dynamic is reversed.

But Paulina's deep sense of spiritual honesty is at the core of her character, not her desire to fight."

l Tickets: 01635 46044. Tours to Malvern, Guildford, Salford, Liverpool, Oxford, Richmond and Newcastle upon Tyne from April 16 to June 4. A different production will be in rep at Shakespeare's Globe, June 4 - October 1. Tickets: 020 7401 9919

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