Sunday, February 27, 2011

Exit, pursued by a bear.

Cast member Joe Baxter reclines casually outside Hotel Bristol on a sunny afternoon, beer in one hand, pile of pamphlets for The Winter’s Tale in the other. This is hardly your usual promotional drive for a Shakespeare production. But get him talking on this year’s Summer Shakespeare and you’ll see the sparks of enthusiasm in his eyes and a professionalism unbefitting of his attire. Bringing together a youthful cast of students and graduates from Toi Whakaari, Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and our very own Victoria University, the 2011 Summer Shakespeare production achieves something quite remarkable- making Shakespeare interactive, dynamic, and refreshingly local while remaining true to the original text. Performed to an audience on picnic blankets at the Botanical Garden’s Sound Shell, ironically, The Winter’s Tale makes for perfect summer fare.

The first half of the play is set in the Sicilian court where King Leontes (Jonathan Price), incensed by the attentions of his wife Hermione (Amy Usherwood) to his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Tom Clarke) rapidly descends into a state of irreconcilable jealousy. Powerful performances from the leads and convincing ensemble work soon leaves the audience embroiled in a typically Shakespearean tale of tragedy and revenge.
By contrast, the second half of the play emphasises the bard’s more comic elements. Minimal but effective staging sets the scene of Polixenes’ Bohemia in the quintessential Kiwi woolshed, where clever audience interaction, Katy Perry reprises and Tui crate bottles provide for plenty of laughs, without detracting from the storyline. Theo Taylor, playing a rogue, Autolycus, adds boundless energy and acrobatic flare in an almost Freddy Mercury-esque performance.

Beautifully brought together in an ethereal and moving final scene, The Winter’s Tale is an unlikely, but wonderful marriage between rural Kiwi humour and enthralling Shakespearean tragedy. From the finest costuming details to the haunting music provided by just one guitar and drum kit, every aspect of the performance is polished without being overwrought. This year’s Summer Shakespeare has succeeded in making one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” accessible and highly entertaining, and has proved that there is much more to The Winter’s Tale than Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction.

I don't believe in New Years resolutions. But if I did, mine this year would be to go to the theatre more often. And let's be honest, given my previous track record, "more often" roughly equates to "at all". Wellington is so brimming with the arts, that drama seeps out from under Cuba Street doorways, and gutters run thick with paint. I don't have many regrets from my time here, but I do regret not making the most of this wealth of creativity and talent we have all around us. 

In the last month or so I've been to a Shakespearean play in the Botanical Gardens and a Mozart opera at Mighty Mighty. Apart from raising your salty Cuba Street cred through the roof, performances like these are well worth a look. And with so many events free, or with decent student prices there are no excuses- you don't even have to sacrifice the price of two drinks at El Horno.  Even if it's not usually your thing, give a night a the theatre a go, a bit of culture every once in a while can't hurt, and if you need to feel studenty you can still bring along your Bernadino and twisties.

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