Wednesday, December 21, 2016


The Hermes Experiment at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

for The Reviews Hub

This 60 minute musical re-imagining of Shakespeare's problem play is a boldly ingenious experiment with the drama.

This year has seen many Shakespeare-inspired performances. Song recitals, of course, but also Mendelssohn, Walton, Korngold et al in concert with extracts from the canon. And it's not long since The Winter's Tale was successfully re-shaped as a full-length ballet.

This offering from The Hermes Experiment, though, stands on its own. Devised and developed during workshops at an Aldeburgh Music Residency, it seeks to re-interpret the play using musicians as an organic part of the performance. The text is ruthlessly pruned – out goes almost all of the comedy, the shepherds and the sheep, the beach and the bear. So the focus is on jealousy, joy and redemption.

As if aware that to absorb music and poetry together, but separately, is already a demand on the audience's concentration, the design is simple and subdued. The performers are all in black; their feet are bare. There are banks of flowers, and ribbons hung from the Cockpit roof suggesting a maypole or a circus tent.

The musicians begin at the back, but the harp, the bass and the clarinet move to a more prominent, integrated position for the staging of “Give me the boy” at the start of Act Two. There is movement, too, in addition to the music and the text, in a kind of chorus.

How well does all this work ?  The music and the words are subtly layered; sometimes one strand seems to move to the fore, to be supplanted by another as scene follows scene. Some of Kim Ashton's music is improvised, reacting to the verse and the events on stage. Some of it sounds more like under-score, of the kind which has been prominent at Shakespeare's Globe this season. Occasionally the actors struggle to make the text heard over the instruments. Leontes' first jealous rages, for example, which are wonderfully supported by movement and non-verbal vocalization, have to be shouted when a subtler variation in tone might be more powerful.
But the best sequences manage to be moving in a way that transcends technique. Perdita's wordless song as the snowflake petals fall and the swaddling scarf is passed to the grown girl, for example, and the whole of the closing scene, with its ethereal music and fine work between Perdita and Hermione.
The verse speaking is, for the most part, clear and intelligent. William McGeough's Sicily is strong, especially in his despair; Robert Willoughby is the object of his jealousy, and also gets some of the few laughs as one of the Gentlemen who share the news in the last act. Christopher Adams is the other Gentleman and everyone else bar Autolycus, a victim of the comedy cull.
Excellent presence from Sadie Parsons as a noble Hermione, with Louisa Hollway as a feisty, impassioned Paulina.
Héloïse Werner, co-director of The Hermes Experiment, is the soprano Perdita, her songs without words one of the chief glories of the scoring.
The music is constantly inventive – the prominent bass (Marianne Schofield) for the birth, the breast-beating, the pastoral harp (Anne Denholm). The musicians move in and out of the action, but only Florizel (clarinettist Stephen Williams) is both actor and instrumentalist.
The quartet's line-up – harp, clarinet, voice and bass – is itself very unusual, and Hermes have been assiduous in exploring repertoire and commissioning new work. This fascinating Shakespeare collaboration between Director (Nina Brazier) and Composer (Kim Ashton) is a ground-breaking, and often inspirational, blend of music, movement and text.

production photograph: Cathy Pyle

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