Conrad Nelson & the bear issue in Northern Broadsides’ A Winter’s Tale

NB's rehearsals The Winter's Tale, directed by Conrad Nelson. Image Nobby Clark.
Northern Broadsides’ rehearsals
The Winter’s Tale, directed by Conrad Nelson. Image Nobby Clark.

Conrad Nelson is a man of many talents. The actor, director and composer is utilising all his skill in the upcoming autumn tour of Northern Broadsides version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.

Here he talks to Stage Review about the production.

“I actually do this with bated breath. I have a few people in the show who are regular Northern Broadsides actors and Andy Cryer has done assisting stuff with me before.

“In the middle section, when they go to Bohemia, Leontes, who I’m playing, isn’t in it at all – and I’ve no intention of putting him in that section.

“Directing and acting isn’t something I want to be doing all the time.

“We’re rehearsing at Harrogate Theatre where we open on September 18 – this is our third partnership with them, so that’s going really well.

“Whenever you do Shakespeare people want to know where you’re going to set it, what you are going to do to identify the piece.

“Well, we’re going to open the play on New Year’s Eve, 1999. For me, New Year’s Eve is a time of reflection, looking back at what you’ve done and resolutions, looking forward to the future.

“For those old enough to remember it, New Year’s Eve 1999 felt like it was that feeling for everyone, multiplied. Everyone was looking back not just on the last year, but reflecting on the passing of a century and looking forward to a new millennium.

A Winter's Tale

“It felt like it was full of potential and possibilities – I felt like I wanted to start the play on that knife-edge of looking forward and back.

“In the play the main protagonists are lifelong, boyhood friends, so we can look back on their long relationship. You also have a pregnant queen, Leontes’ wife is going to give birth, so we are looking forward as well.

“The fact that the play traverses 16 years means we end bang up to date. That doesn’t mean an overwhelming amount of contemporary reflections – we’re not going to suddenly have an election in the middle of the piece – what it does do is give us the opportunity to say at the start of the play that we are starting in this fulcrum moment in terms of time.

“Also, it means we don’t have to put it in period. There’s nothing wrong with period, but in this instance I just didn’t see the advantage.

“We could set it historically, but then you have to justify why and you have to consider what that might do politically to the play.

“The section in Bohemia is a bit folksy, but I believe that today we’re in a world that is eclectic with styles that are influenced by different time periods.

“I dance with the Saddleworth Morris Dancers, so suddenly I am dancing every other week with clogs on and flowers in my hat and the next I’m on my computer.

“We’re all a mixture of styles these days, it doesn’t matter. The play goes to Bohemia – which is supposed to be landlocked, but in this play it’s by the sea.

“We are playing around with the theatricality of the piece. I’m interested in the question of what is the life of the play; what is our play about and what does it cover within the two hours traffic of the stage?

“This play takes you somewhere and it is surprising the way it throws you around and that is to its benefit. I think this play shows you a mature writer who is taking risks with styles and it’s really great to see a later stage Shakespeare play and to allow yourself to be surprised by him.

“I’ve not done a part with Broadsides since I played Iago in Othello in 2009. I’ve played one of the Alan Bennett Talking Heads and I’ve done quite a lot of radio, but I have been concentrating on directing more recently.

“While directing and being in plays is not something I’m going to be doing regularly, it felt like the right thing to do this time.

“I was looking at the play and I thought that if I was directing and casting this play, I’d be looking for someone like me to play Leontes – or if not someone like me, it’s certainly a part that I could play.

“It just felt right within the life of the company as a whole for me to show my face on stage again.

“As far as the rest of the cast, there’s Broadsides regulars and some people straight from drama school, some people I’ve worked with on non-Broadsides projects, it’s a really nice mix.

“It’s good to have Andy Cryer on board and we’ve got Mike Hugo playing Autolycus – I’ve done five shows now with Mike – so that’s great”.

Is there going to be a bear in the production?

“Ah, the bear, it’s a pain in the bear bum! It’s going to be extremely simple. If someone comes on in a bear costume and everyone laughs and undercuts all the work you’ve done in the past hour, then you’ve ruined it. So no man in a bear costume”.

UK Tour dates

September 18-26, Harrogate Theatre
September 29-October 3, Oldham Coliseum
October 6-10, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
October 13-17, Lawrence Batley Theatre
October 20–24, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
October 27–31, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
November 3–7, New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
November 10–14, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster
November 17–21, Liverpool Playhouse
November 24–28, The Viaduct, Halifax.

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