Henry V, The Winter's Tale, The Maori Troilus and Cressida, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane and Frequently Asked Questions review

by Elspeth Sandys / 23 March, 2012
Shakespeare was everywhere at the International Arts Festival.

This year’s New Zealand nInternational Arts Festival delivered a feast of bravely reimagined Shakespeare, some of it – HENRY V and THE WINTER’S TALE from UK company Propeller; THE MAORI TROILUS AND CRESSIDA – stunning in its impact, the rest an uneven mix, yielding compelling moments but succumbing too often to tricksiness.

The intention behind Propeller’s allmale, multi-award-winning productions of Shakespeare (directed by Edward Hall) is simple – to honour the original text by telling the story with as much clarity and energy as possible. No tricks, no dumbing down, but plenty of innovation in the use of contemporary visual language.

So we see Henry (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart: a deliberately uncharismatic king?) in modern military uniform, surrounded by squaddies, who sing songs from the Clash and the Pogues. They go to war with swords drawn, while an artillery bombardment rages overhead. If this sounds confusing, the opposite is true.

What we see here is war at its ugliest – the summary execution of prisoners; the arbitrary nature of mercy; the shrewd political calculations used to justify the invasion of one sovereign state by another. Henry’s courting of the common man, his need to be loved, his at times frantic search for a moral imperative to vindicate his actions, brings Tony Blair to mind.

Nor do the echoes stop there: there’s the Duke of Burgundy, like a Neville Chamberlain pleading for peace; there’s the slaughter of the French prisoners, with its uncanny mirroring of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. That all this is achieved while honouring the play Shakespeare wrote is testament to the integrity and dynamism of this exciting company.

Time as the slow revealer of Truth is the theme of The Winter’s Tale, a play as different from Henry V as chalk from cheese. The actors who strutted the stage in military garb to give us a no-holds-barred version of the patriotic English king don double-breasted suits and, in the case of the women, long shadowy gowns to bring alive the court of Leontes (an excellent Robert Hands), King of Sicilia. And since Time in this play is both enabler and narrator, it is fitting that once again liberties are taken, and the period of the story rendered inexact.

In the hilarious opening to the country scenes, Autolycus (a brilliant Tony Bell, capping his splendid Fluellen in Henry V), dressed as a rustic Mick Jagger, crashes onto the stage in a song-and-dance routine that won a spontaneous and well-deserved round of applause. Accompanied by a chorus of sheep, wearing knitted pixie hats and Arran jerseys, and playing a variety of instruments, Autolycus’s line “Take it away, Saxophone Sheep”, which cannot be attributed to Shakespeare, almost brought the house down.

But there is a dark side to this tale told in winter, which this production, for all its playful inventiveness (much could be said in praise of the lighting and sound effects), does not shy away from. What Propeller does in these two productions is reveal the light and the dark, not as separate realities, but coexisting in an imperfect world. Ngakau Toa’s production of Troilus and Cressida, destined for the Globe to Globe multilingual Shakespeare festival in London next month, is astonishing.

It is sexy, angry and laugh-out-loud funny, and seeing and hearing it in te reo, far from making it less accessible to non-Maori speakers, had the effect of bringing the action into even sharper focus. The acting is exemplary. Rawiri Paratene is the best Pandarus (Panatara) I have ever seen (and that includes Royal Shakespare Company productions), and the marvellously tattooed warriors almost convinced me Shakespeare had written this play with pre-European Maori society in mind.

Te Haumihiata Mason’s “translation” (with almost half the play cut to fi t the Globe’s requirements, this is really more of an adaptation) exposes the bones of the story in ways that make painfully clear Shakespeare’s uncompromising view of human pride and mendacity.

My only quibble is the decision to stage it on the country’s most distracting marae. I envy London audiences who will see it on the bare Globe stage (and Aucklanders about to see it in Aotea Square). Hopefully, it will have another life here when the company returns to New Zealand.

How to stage Hamlet in a way that will make the audience see the play afresh is the idea behind Irish company Pan Pan’s THE REHEARSAL, PLAYING THE DANE. Whether you think the company succeeds in its aim or not depends on where you stand in relation to Shakespeare’s most famous, and most frequently performed, play.

If you give the performance the thumbs-up, the extraordinarily imaginative lengths the company has gone to to reinvent Hamlet will have given you new insight into not just the play but the world of theatre (the fi rst half is a re-enactment of auditions, at the end of which the audience votes for the actor it wants to play Hamlet). If you’re not convinced (my own response is somewhere between the two), then you will have nonetheless found plenty to entertain you in this hectic mix of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, theatre history, academic appraisal and hilarious thespian antics.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: TO BE OR NOT TO BE, ETC, a one-man show starring the inimitable Michael Hurst, presents the audience with a second riff on Hamlet. Quite why two such similarly focused plays should have been chosen for the festival is something only the organisers can answer,
but in my view neither production reaches the standards set elsewhere.

With three writers – Hurst himself, Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove – credited in the programme, it’s perhaps not surprising the “play” (I’m not sure it really is one) lacks context, choosing instead to throw four of Shakespeare’s most famous characters – Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello – into often hilarious confrontations, all to no apparent purpose except to entertain.

Its success in doing just that is down to Hurst’s brilliant segueing from one character to another. His Macbeth, a slightly crazed, foul-mouthed Taggart, is a showstopper. But if you came to this production with only a casual acquaintance with the four plays, you would be at a loss to know what was going on.

HENRY V, February 29-March 4, and THE WINTER’S TALE, March 1-4; THE MAORI TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, March 9 and 10; THE REHEARSAL, PLAYING THE DANE, February 24-28; FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: TO BE OR NOT TO BE, ETC, March 2-11. All as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival. The Maori Troilus and Cressida will be performed in Aotea Square, Auckland, March 22-24.
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