Tragic tale set in a man’s world

Robert Hands (Leontes) and Richard Dempsey (Hermione) with the company in Propeller's production of The Winter's Tale, Lyceum Theatre, Feb 2012
Robert Hands (Leontes) and Richard Dempsey (Hermione) with the company in Propeller's production of The Winter's Tale, Lyceum Theatre, Feb 2012

LAST year when Propeller performed in Sheffield, Richard Dempsey was in the audience.

He was a member of the cast of Me and My Girl which nipped across from the Crucible to the Lyceum to see the celebrated all-male company performing Shakespeare’s Richard III at a matinee. This time he is on stage with Propeller in their production of The Winter’s Tale which arrives on tour next week.

A tragic fairytale, The Winter’s Tale tells of a man consumed by an inexplicable jealousy that destroys his family, his kingdom and himself. Dempsey is playing Hermione, the innocent victim of her husband Leontes’ irrational action.

Director Edward Hall’s policy of all-male versions of Shakespeare is no mere gimmick, insists Dempsey.

“It was illegal for women to perform at the time Shakespeare was writing so it’s interesting to see the play done as they would have done and it brings out the nuances in the text you would not hear otherwise,” says the actor who first appeared with the company a few years ago as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

By practical necessity actors usually end up playing more than one role in a play. “The whole culture of Propeller is ensemble work and Hermione goes out of it at the end of the trial so I reappear as Dorcas, a young lady in Bohemia. While Hermione is strong and competent and wise and has a tragic story it’s quite nice to play someone much sillier.”

The men playing the female roles approach them no differently to any other, according to Dempsey. “We try not to camp it up. Most of what Shakespeare does is in the text and is done for you,” he says. “You try and capture the essence of the character even though you lack the element of feminity.

“I have a beautiful evening dress for Hermione but I can’t get away from the fact I am 6ft and a 38-year-old man. It’s interesting how the audience engages with that and takes a leap of faith. Their concentration level changes and they buy into it.”

Dempsey began his career as a child actor and at 14 appeared in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on television. “It was like what happened to the kids in the story, we entered a new world of cameras and lights and everything,” he recalls.

“I did a lot of TV after that and then when I was 17 I was cast in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. That was like a dream and so I trained after that to discover how you didn’t have to work in one medium.”

He has since worked extensively in the theatre, managing to alternate musical theatre with the classics. The actor also has his own musical show, A Spotlight on Richard Dempsey, which he performed in London. “I was invited to do it, I hasten to add. It’s a format where they get people to talk about their career and sing songs that are important to them.” Anything from Me and My Girl? “Absolutely, I chose The Sun Has Got Its Hat On.”

The Winter’s Tale is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.