The Winter’s Tale comes in from the cold at The Square Tower

Rob Bartlett, Susie Coutts and Andy Thomas at rehearsals for The Winter's Tale.  Picture by John Farnhill

Rob Bartlett, Susie Coutts and Andy Thomas at rehearsals for The Winter's Tale. Picture by John Farnhill

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The Southsea Shakespeare Actors will be taking on a ‘problem’ with their latest production, The Bard’s The Winter’s Tale.

The troupe will be putting on the play, one of Shakespeare’s later works, some of which are often described as the problem plays due to their lack of clear genre and style.

The thing about The Winter’s Tale was that as there were no high profile models of how to do it, it’s been a very interesting project for us to approach

Director Nick Downes

Nick Downes is directing for the SSA and says: ‘Basically the plays get a little bit more quirky as the career goes on, it’s as if he’s experimenting a bit, pushing the envelope and seeing how far he can take the ideas and the language.

‘One of the things that typically happens in the later plays, like The Winter’s Tale, is that you get a mixed bag as far as genre is concerned.

‘Rather than straight-forward tragedy or comedy, you get plays with dramatic, comic and romantic elements, so they’re not always easy to categorise, and they’re a bit more adventurous in the use of language.’

While the play has had some more high-profile outings lately – Kenneth Branagh recently staged it, starring Dame Judi Dench – it is one of the less-performed Shakespeare plays.

‘It’s been a little bit of a Cinderella play for a while and now people are taking an interest in it,’ says Nick.

And as Nick adds, this was partly what drew the troupe to put it on.

‘I think it was partly because we hadn’t done it for a long time, but more importantly from our point of view, it’s nice to tackle one of the lesser-known plays.

‘You can get into a groove doing the most famous plays – the Hamlets, the Romeo and Juliets or A Midsummer Night’s Dreams. The thing about The Winter’s Tale was that as there were no high profile models of how to do it, it’s been a very interesting project for us to approach.’

They’ve also made the decision to shift the era forward a few centuries.

‘We decided to put it more in a roughly late 19th century setting. When a modern audience looks at an Elizabethan or Tudor costume, they see an old costume but they don’t necessarily read the message of what that costume means.

‘When you walk down the street nowadays and you see how someone dresses you would characterise them in a particular way. We’re too far removed from the Elizabethans to do that very well, but not too far removed from the Victorian or Edwardian world to go: “Ah, she’s a lady”, “he’s a gent”, “he’s a rogue”...’

The production will also see them return to The Square Tower, where they staged Macbeth two years ago.

‘It’s a space we know reasonably well, the main problem is that it’s obviously not a custom-built theatre – it’s an empty space, but just as tackling a lesser-known play can be more interesting than doing a well-worn winner, approaching a space that’s more or less empty and then being a bit creative with it is more interesting than being in a fully-equipped studio theatre.’

And as to how they’ll be tackling perhaps the best-known stage direction in all of Shakespeare: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, they’re keeping their lips sealed. ‘It’s a surprise’ says Nick.

The Square Tower, Portsmouth

April 6-9

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