The Winter’s Tale: Shakespeare musically reimagined
The Hermes Experiment
The Cockpit. 13 December 2016
The Hermes Experiment are usually a four-piece band with the unusual instrumentation of harp, clarinet, soprano voice and double bass. In their short but impressive life span, they have commissioned new music from around 36 composers, and well as using their own improvisatory skills in performance. Alongside appearances in their four-member format, they are also involved in cross-disciplinary collaborations. For their ‘musical reimagining’ of Shakespeares Winter’s Tale, performed in a one-off show in London’s Cockpit Theatre, they worked with director Nina Brazier, composer Kim Ashton and five actors.
They developed this hour-long take of The Winter’s Tale during an Aldeburgh Music Residency (see video trailer below), with composer Kim Ashton setting out ideas for musical improvisation as much as issuing new composed music. He described the ‘score’ as being ‘a compilation of instructions, including only sparse musical notes’, noting that the music is as much by The Hermes Experiment as by him, and that’most of what we will hear is being improvised live’, responding to ‘musical shapes and behaviors agreed in advance’. Shakespeare’s own text presented in manageable chunks and with musical accompaniment and interludes merging and emerging from the text.
This was very much a collaborative event, with actors and musicians sharing the same space in the black-box theatre (with the audience on three sides) and all being involved in the performance, with musicians having the occasional line or action of their own. The music ranged from a clearly defined folk-style song (which was apparently ‘composed’ collaboratively) to a wide range of sound effects, notably from the double bass and harp (played by Marianne Schofield and Anne Denholm respectively). Stephen Williams played clarinets and bass saxophone (in one memorable scene, closely following the ranting Leontes around the stage), while soprano Héloïse Werner (the co-producer of the show) both sang and acted, as the 16 year old Perdita. The key acting roles were William McGeough as the troubled Leontes, and a lovely pairing of Sadie Parsons and Louisa Hollway as Hermione and Paulina, each excelling in portraying their complex characters and the dramatic scenes. Robert Willoughby and Christoper Adams played multiple roles, including a wonderfully camped-up interlude as the Two Gentlemen which helpfully moved the action rapidly on through several scenes.
If Sadie Parsons hasn’t had children herself, she gave a remarkably sensitive performance of an expectant mother, gently rubbing the tummy bulge. One very well-judged scene saw the little bundle of cloth that she eventually gave birth to (and was the physical focus of much of the early action) transformed into the 16 year-old Perdita by being unraveled and turned into a scarf around Perdita’s neck: a neat solution to one of Shakespeare’s more awkward Act shifts. The action moved swiftly through a series of scenarios, each brilliantly summing up the gist of the original, but then evolving seamlessly into another scene or Act. When not specifically performing, the cast often formed into a ‘Greek chorus’ of bystanders, or created their own sometimes frenzied movements related to the action.
As well as acting the 16 year-old Perdita, soprano Héloïse Werner provided some evocative wordless vocalise melismas. Percussive accompaniments also came from the actors, notably during the trial of Queen Hermione when three bystanders beat their chests to a heart-beat rhythm.
This was a most impressive production that gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end, including at least one under-10 child. As somebody who struggled with Shakespeare at school, when teaching involved an entire class reading sections out by rote with little or no comprehension of what was going on, this approach seems to be an ideal way of presenting Shakespeare. At no time did I feel that I was missing anything in the truncated text, and the musical contributions seemed entirely appropriate. It deserves far more than one showing.