As their 2021 autumn tale, Melbourne Shakespeare Company presents a lively, well-judged open-air staging of A Winter’s Tale in the charming surrounds of Central Park Malvern.
Deftly enhanced with live music and snappy choreography, the brisk, abridged production benefits chiefly from the impressively reverent approach to Shakespeare’s text. Outdoor seasons have an unfortunate tendency to go for the lowest common denominator in a bid to divert the masses; thankfully, this sort of indulgence is far from the case here.
Director Jennifer Sarah Dean brings out polished performances from the ensemble cast of 14 talented players, several of whom provide live music in addition to acting, singing and dancing. Known as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays for its combination of drama and comedy, Dean irons out the unevenness by balancing the early drama with touches of humour and music. Comedy is character-driven and neatly performed. The drama lands impactfully, particularly King Leontes’ hideous treatment of his wife Hermione, her humiliating public trial for adultery all the more painful to watch at this time.
Rarely performed locally, clarity of storytelling for The Winter’s Tale is aided not just by Dean’s insightful direction and the solid performances of the cast, but by a canny touch of costume designer Aislinn Naughton: named labels are affixed to the costumes, significantly helping the audience differentiate the twenty or more key characters. Naughton uses burgundy and grey for the military vibe of Sicilia before switching to a rural 1940s feel for breezy Bohemia.
Curating a diverse and wittily selected score, musical director Natalie Calia livens and supports the performance. It is a pleasure to hear acoustic performances, the instrumentals all the more impressive for the absence of sheet music. Vocal harmonies are at a premium, with a particular highlight being the a cappella section of “Mad World,” sung by Jessica Barton, Adam Canny and May Jasper*. A nifty swing arrangement of Whitney Houston hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a clear standout.
Choreographer John Reed plays to the cast’s strengths, giving individual performers opportunities to shine. Full company numbers are well synchronised, reflecting a thorough approach in rehearsal.
Set designer Hayley James provides two settings, which are subtly modified to distinguish the realms of Sicilia and Bohemia. In the absence of a proscenium arch, actors magically materialise from all angles, giving the performance an organic, natural feel. As dusk turns gradually to night, portable footlights on milk crates provide surprisingly effective illumination.
The cast is anchored by experienced actors David Meadows and Anton Berezin as the two Kings. A commanding presence, Meadows’ commitment to the role of Leontes sees him colour his beard black before switching to grey after the passing of 16 years. Berezin brings his natural charm as Polixenes, blending in gentle comedy when the King sports a goofy disguise.
Tref Gare displays well-honed comic chops as the Shepherd, also demonstrating his distinctive flair on the trombone. Emma Austin has the self-confidence to open the show with an improvised address to the audience, going on to prove a natural with physical comedy as well as playing saxophone and clarinet.
In the supporting role of noblewoman Paulina, Elizabeth Slattery gives a particularly fine reading of Shakespeare’s words. Her vocal delivery is really a pleasure to hear. Melanie Gleeson brings affecting poise to the indignity suffered by the wrongly accused Hermione.
With a running time of just 90 minutes, The Winter’s Tale is an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for families. Head down to Central Park with some picnic food and a comfy outdoor chair for some welcome, highly affordable live entertainment.
*May Jasper rolled her ankle during the performance and yet saw out the show with a bandage and a crutch. What a trooper!
Photos: Jack Dixon-Gunn