August 01, 1987

Telling Works

The Winter’s Tale
State Theatre Company

A Touchy Subject

There have been a number of productions of The Winters Tale lately. But the State Theatre Company has made glorious summer with a version that represents some of its finest work to date. The Winter‘s Tale forms part of a cluster of plays in Artistic Director, John Gaden’s 1987 programme. It began with his and Gale Edward’s Much Ado About Nothing back in February and links with Shakespearean motifs in the forthcoming production of David Malouf’s Blood Relations and, the final listing for the year, Michael Gow’s Away.

Like Much Ado, The Winters Tale pivots on false accusation and summary revenge, but, while the havoc is short -lived in Messina, the calumny which Leontes inflicts on his wife, Hermione, is of sixteen bitter years’ duration. In Elizabethan parlance, a winter’s tale is a fantastical or ghost story and there is much that is unearthly and magical in Shakespeare ‘s play. It is one of the great last plays of the canon and, although, technically, it is a comedy, it is full of dark menace and bearish fate that is not lost on directors John Gaden and Gale Edwards, or designer Mary Moore. In fact, rarely have we seen State combine direction and design with such clarity and depth as in this production.

More than in Much Ado, State’s Winter‘s Tale highlights the fact that the breath of kings can be absolute, cruel and foul indeed. Leontes, seized by the notion that his boyhood chum, Polixenes, from over-the-way Bohemia, is in love with Hermione, unleashes the mad logic and the coarse vocabulary of sexual jealousy. Talk of ‘sluicing’ and ponds being fished, distastefully emphasises the fact that Hermione is merely the chattel of a capricious ruler whose word is death.

As Leontes, John Gaden gives one of the best performances of his Adelaide tenure. His infected suspicion has a white fury that registers convincing terror in his son Mamillius, capably played by Brian Rooney. Gaden’s Leontes is even more telling in final contrition, but the directors are well aware that resolution must depend on Hermione’s magnaminity and not on the salt tears of the king.

Jane Menelaus’ Hermione is particularly splendid in Ac t I – her speech as fluent and scrupulously inflected as one could hope for. The trial scene is perhaps less satisfactorily presented. Hermione, dispossessed of her newborn, Perdita, and vilified by her husband, nevertheless needs to be more defiant in her defence. Like Paulina, Hermione is a fearless woman of great integrity. This is not an overemphasis for the sake of current ideology (although that would be quite legitimate), it is all there in Shakespeare’s text.

Barbara West as Paulina and Rhys McConnochie as Camillo give distinguished performances, although in presenting Leontes’ lords as abashed and meek, we get a sense of Paulina as scolding nurse not a woman encircled by the male wrath of the royal court. West’s performance however is well-calibrated and central to the production. McConnochie’s Camillo is, in detail and intelligence, the best performance of the night, and one that radiates both to Gaden’s Leontes and Russell Kiefel’s Polixenes.

Designer Mary Moore, whose work has been less frequently seen since she left Troupe in 1985, has made a triumphant return to mainstage production. Her set is clean and uncompromising, using slim nouveau classical columns which are regal and imprisoning as needs dictate. Acknowledging the pre-Christian elements of this winter’s tale, she has looked to the porch of the Erechtheum from the Acropolis for an image of women holding up structures which at the same time encumber them. It also provides an effortless link to the statue scene where Paulina’s gallery reveals woman incarnate and objectified by Da Vinci, Raphael and Warhol’s Marilyn.

Just as the set reflects the metallic verticals and black-and-white absolutes of Sicilia, so the costumes in variants of black and grey, severely but elegantly display a cool authority and rigidity which contrasts with the brilliant hand-painted silks and polymorphous sensuality of Bohemia. Gamboling under a stylised rainbow of iridescent arched piping, the shepherds trailing festoons of flowers represent hippie swains in a brave new workers’ world …. one fit for the redemption of Perdita and Florizel (Catherine McClements and Luciano Martucci), and a match for both the cold fish of Sicilia and the credit-card carrying skullduggery of Autolycus, played by Geoffrey Rush with elastic spivvy buffoonery and more than a hint of theatresports crowd baiting.

Gaden and Edwards have allowed the simplicity of Moore’s design to shape and elucidate the action and have deftly drawn performances of pleasing evenness and depth from the ensemble. When you add in John Comeadow’s shadowy lighting and Moya Henderson’s evocative music, it is clear that Gaden’s State Theatre Company has excelled with their sad tale for winter.

From the-moment Margaret Fischer steps on stage in a blue foreman’s coat with a badge declaring “Sexual Harassment – I want some”, Vitalstatistix , Adelaide’s talented women’s theatre group keep a very touchy subject very squarely in their sights. Sexual harassment is no laughing matter. Unwelcome sexual attention in the form of leering, groping, wolf-whistling and off-jokes cause untold misery and loss of production in workplaces, schools and elsewhere in the community. Demands for sexual favours in return for promotion, better grades or just keeping a job, are even more insidious. Under Commonwealth legislation this behaviour is now illegal. But convincing people, the vast majority of whom are men, that they should change their nasty little ways is a slower process.

Vitalstatistix ‘ A Touchy Subject is a nimble, easily transportable and accessible fifty minute revue of all these unsavoury practices with some pithy suggestions for dealing with them. It is the company’s best work to date and one they can feel proud of even though they have taken on challenging tasks in past shows – such as the tyrannies of fashion stereotypes of beauty and the ordeals of obesity – presenting issues relating to sexual harassment in constructive and amusing ways is no mean feat.

The Vitals have a variety of audiences in mind – the skits about young apprentices giving female workmates a hard time will be recognisable to TAFE and high school students, the office groper lurking near the photocopier will be overfamiliar to officer workers. The debate between the wolf whistler and the Genuine Compliment is a high point. Clad in a giant foam and fabric comic strip speaking bubble, Margaret Fischer genially argues the efficacy of the conversation against more yobbo forms of courtship. It is a shrewd sketch and gently persuasive.

When Ollie Black looks into her laundry basket for clothes to wear to work, judging each garment to be too alluring because of what it might reveal, or conceal, or flatter, the final result in white gumboots, elbow length gloves, overcoat, and helmet with visor is a comic but pungent commentary on the commonplace male attitude that women are fair game if they dress attractively.

Director Darrelyn Gunzberg keeps the show well paced with only occasional hiccups in continuity. Cath Cantlon’s design is again thrifty and droll, with giant polystyrene props and pop art storyboard backgrounds. The quirky talents of Fischer, Black and the energetic Michelle Stanley make A Touchy Subject an enlightening one which is already raising neanderthal consciousness and providing solidarity for audiences around Adelaide.

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage Australia, August, 1987, pp.16-17.

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