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INTERVIEW: Conrad Nelson…on The Winter’s Tale

Conrad Nelson’s long career at Northern Broadsides has taken in directing (Hamlet) or playing the lead rôle (Richard III among others) in several iconic Shakespeare plays. In The Winter’s Tale, he combines the two, playing Leontes as well as directing, as he explained to Ron Simpson.

Is this the first time you’ve directed and taken the lead rôle for Northern Broadsides?

Yes, it is. As you know, quite often we multi-rôle so I might direct and write music, or act and write music. This time I seem to be doing all three, though Bex Hughes, our music director, helps with the music. It’s not something I’m dying to do, just doing it. We’ve got a big cast, 13, and an extra actor puts a big strain on the budget.

Of course, like all the characters in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes has his long rests.

This is the plus side. In Act 4, which is a long act (maybe 40 minutes), I’m not in it at all. Everybody else is in it, playing instruments or whatever. It’s not like playing Richard III when you’re in practically every scene, so it works out pretty well.

The Winter’s Tale is a strange play, with the odd 16-year break in the middle, and it’s one that I perhaps disliked for many years before I finally “got” it.

These things go to some extent on fashion. People say it’s a “problem play”, but what’s the problem? What you get is a great combination of tragedy, comedy, romance – your palate is treated to lots of different things with a bit of sorbet in between to clean it! I think it’s a good journey. If you’ve not seen the play before (and, of course, we hope that people who don’t know the play will come to see it) you can’t know what’s going to happen because it doesn’t follow an expected path – and that’s great if you’re prepared to take on the joy of the ride. It may become a problem later, but at the moment it feels much more of a joy, the scope of it, the breadth of the emotions, the fact that it covers all bases. It’s even got a touch of magic realism at the end.

I don’t want to ask for details of the ending – not wishing to give away too much to people who don’t know the play – but isn’t the transformation difficult to do in some of the theatres you are touring to?

This is what some people forget. We’re travelling from a proscenium arch theatre such as here at Harrogate to that unique space at the Viaduct to two theatres in the round. One trick will not work in all the venues because you just can’t have the same physical journey with the stagecraft in the round. There’s no set as such and it becomes a totally different experience. You have to look for simple solutions, old theatrical solutions, and play the reality of the situation. If we as actors believe what’s going on in front of us, the audience will go with it; they want to be involved in it. The Winter’s Tale is in its own world, it’s not referenced to anything else – it only exists in reference to itself.

When are you setting the production?

We’ve started the play in 1999, New Year’s Eve, but it’s not the date that’s important, it’s the event, New Year’s Eve. The play begins with old friends together; you’ve got a pregnant wife so there’s reflection on the past and anticipation of the future. The gap of 16 years brings us neatly to when we’re doing the play, 2015. We start with a party, a celebration, and everything is positive. I’ve seen it before where there’s the inference that something is going to go wrong, but that’s not the way to start the play. You want to think it’s great, and then it breaks down. It doesn’t matter if it breaks down on the second line, if the first line is up, play it up.

Music is always very important in Broadsides productions. What can you tell us?

I don’t want the music to be referenced to 1990s pop music or anything. Our music is live, it’s eclectic, and it fits the play. Where is Bohemia? Somewhere, nowhere. Apart from the original music, we use Russian liturgical music for the magical transformation. With the first Autolycus song, I read it and thought, “This is an advert”, so I’ve done like a 1950s advert – “a few words from our sponsor”. When the shepherds and shepherdesses dance, we have some Western swing. Autolycus plays a sort of touring street performer gig with a loop pedal and guitar, we have some folk rock and then the next number is sort of Bob Dylan – Autolycus is a shape changer who disguises everything, so we have all different styles to suit the moment in the play.

What would you say to someone who regards The Winter’s Tale as a silly play, as I did when I was younger?

Is it an age thing? Every time I rehearse things now, compared with 20 years ago, as a father and an older man, I make a different connection with the play. It has oddities, but it’s far from a silly play. It’s the work of a mature writer – very modern in some ways, with split lines all the time. It’s only when Perdita comes in with a big speech that we get the pure iambic pentameter and it brings light to the whole play.

The Winter’s Tale plays Harrogate Theatre from 18 – 26 September 2015before a 10-theatre tour finishing at the Viaduct, Halifax (24 – 28 November 2015).

Image: Nobby Clark

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.