Review By Megan Mitchell
The Winter's Tale opened on a cool, drizzly night at La Mama; so far, living up to it’s name. The Shakespearean production was put on as part of Asia TOPA, and was a collaboration between La Trobe Student Theatre and Hong Kong Shax Theatre Group. As far as amateur theatre goes, it had vitality, excitement and a charged atmosphere, as well as some missed opportunities.
The production was 90% classical Shakespearean text and performance; while predominantly sticking to the traditional language, they opened the show with a current commentary on the corona virus, and wove modern discussion throughout. This enabled the cast to frame themselves as the storytellers of The Winters Tale from an outside perspective, and made the transition from modern life to Shakespearean language a little smoother for the audience. The school uniforms and masks were a wise costuming decision, to allow the audience to easily differentiate narrative from commentary.
The Winter's Tale itself is a strange play in that the first half seems to be a tragedy (despite having everyone’s favourite stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’) while the second half sits comfortably within comedy. The cast were confident, with no noticeable opening-night nerves and a very supportive audience. Perhaps because of the collaborative and disrupted rehearsal process between the two countries, the show lacked a certain amount of polish, which could have been improved if the performance styles were more consistent across the cast.
While it was enjoyable to watch the individual personality and character leap out of each performer, it didn’t quite give off the impression of a cohesive piece; some actors’ performances were subtle while others were hammy, and others yet who seemed uncomfortable with the language and needed more direction in how to deliver iambic pentameter.
However the passion from each performer created a brilliant energy within the theatre - their eagerness and excitement was authentic and impossible to fake. The performers’ enjoyment and ease automatically transports the audience into a similar state. The range of acting styles and experience levels created some fascinating characters, surprising moments and unexpected interactions.
The supporting cast, who jumped between smaller roles, I felt were particularly strong. They were engaging to watch, even while passively listening onstage, and seamlessly moved between different characters. Equally, I found the lead characters really came alive during their monologues, infusing their speech with nuance and depth that wasn’t as apparent in the dialogue sections. Hermione’s pleas to Leontes were beautifully delivered.
Evangeline Oster was a standout performer, delivering her role as Paulina with a beautiful clarity and purpose, showing great depth of knowledge about the text and how to deliver it. Monica Wat Tsz Yan was charming in all of her roles, as was Paul Doogood who brought joviality and humour into the second half as Shepard.
The Hong Kong-specific elements were one of the highlights; traditional costuming, props, tea, music and dance really elevated the visual impact of the play, giving something well-worn and well-known a new flavour. Upon reading the programme I discovered that the first half was set in 1920s colonial Hong Kong and the second half in 1970s Australia. It was not obvious or entirely clear as to why they chose two different time periods with all of the characters interacting, but because of the genre clash of the play anyway, it didn’t jar. The theatre itself was sparsely decorated; often simply a few ornate chairs, a table with a tea set and a few musical instruments. This suited the style of performance well enough, allowing the dialogue and actors to carry the story forward instead of distracting with an elaborate set.
The thing I enjoy most about theatre is the electricity of live performance; the actors feeding off the audience and vice versa. This production had a beautiful energy, lively and passionate performers and a supportive crowd. I loved the cross-cultural influence of both cast and setting, and think it was a lovely addition to Asia TOPA.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.