The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s residence at the Garrick Theatre began this month with a new production of The Winter’s Tale, which with its initial Christmas setting marks the start of the festive theatreland season.
Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s lesser known and performed plays, The Winter’s Tale highlights the dangers of jealousy and how such feelings can come at a costly price, as Leontes, King of Sicilia (Branagh) begins to dislike the closeness of his pregnant wife to his friend and visitng monarch Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Once such thoughts have taken root, he convinces himself of her infidelity, imprisoning her and ordering that his new baby daughter (who he refuses to believe is his) be taken far away, much to the dismay of the Queen’s trusted companion Paulina (Dench), who tries her best to make him see sense. Sixteen years later, having been raised by a shepherd, the girl meets and falls in love with Polixenes’s son Florizel, but will the truth of her parentage be discovered and Leontes have a chance at redemption?
The play is an interesting mix of concepts from Shakespeare’s canon – characters concealing their identity, jealousy, tragedy, unlikely love and redemption and even though I’d only seen it once before at the RSC in 2009, it is one of my favourites and with such a strong cast, I’d been looking forward to the arrival of this production.
After seeing one of the last previews before press night, overall, I found this to be a hugely enjoyable production. The set by Christopher Oram perfectly captures the mood during the various settings of the play, beginning in a warm, traditional Christmas setting of velvets and reds, with a glorious smell of spices in the air (the benefit of sitting in the second row). As Leontes moves in to a darker, paranoid and ultimately lonely phase, the colour and warmth of the stage drains away in favour of a colder, stark, wintry setting, only for the second act, set 16 years later, to bring the fun and colour back through the home of the shepherd and his friends.
There are plenty of very good performances on the stage. I booked for Dame Judi Dench and she didn’t disappoint, bringing much more life and depth to her supporting role as Paulina than I remember from the last version I saw. Her ease with Shakespeare is clear and she brings such gravitas to the production, acting everyone off the stage. Hadley Fraser is also excellent as Polixenes, whose shock at discovering Leontes’s plan to kill him feeling genuine and believable, as does his later anger directed at his son’s choice of bride. Michael Pennington is good as Paulina’s husband Antigonus (who is destined to encounter the play’s infamous bear, which is sadly only done via a projection on a curtain). I did however feel that he made much less of an impression than Judi Dench, despite them both having relatively small roles and I would have instead preferred to see him return to his wonderful John of Gaunt in the RSC’s Richard II (now to be played by Julian Glover).
The second half of the play introduces new characters, as we follow the lives of Perdita’s adopted family, many years later. I liked Jessie Buckley’s Perdita, although I was a bit distracted by her accent, which seemed to wander from Irish, to West Country and I think her chemistry with Tom Bateman (as Florizel) is still evolving and will grown stronger over the run. Mr Bateman has come a long way since the first preview of Much Ado in 2011 (his professional debut) and I thought he was very good as the young prince, determined to marry for love, in spite of his father’s wishes. The happy, free-spirited, frivolity of the shepherds is a lovely, light contrast to the sad mood of the palace we left in the first half and I thoroughly enjoyed all the dancing and singing, which brought the stage and the play to life.
Miranda Raison (already in one of my favourite plays of the theatre year, Hello/Goodbye) was fantastic as Leontes’s wife Hermione. She conveys her deep love for her family and her shock and hurt at the allegations against her perfectly and brings the inner strength and dignity of her character to life so well. I truly admired Hermione’s composure and grace. On top of that she is utterly beautiful, as if she has stepped out of a fairytale, ideal for the play’s fantastical conclusion.
Then I come to the weakest link of the production, which in my view is Kenneth Branagh himself. Throughout, I felt his delivery of the text was very stilted, enhanced by pauses which resulted in a loss of rhythm and flow, which made his performance seem quite disjointed. I also found him to be incredibly over the top, such as his almost instantaneous switch from happy, loving husband, to crazed madman and his reaction to the tragic news about his wife Hermione. It just didn’t work for me.
Despite my disappointment and frustration with Mr Branagh himself, I would certainly still recommend a trip to this production if you can find a ticket (due to it selling out in advance thanks to the power of Judi Dench, although the app Today Tix provides a daily ticket lottery option). It is an enjoyable, festive production, showcasing one of the country’s finest actresses, who I am always thrilled to watch on stage, as well as those still at the beginning of their careers and the magical quality of Shakespeare’s story is very much alive in this interpretation. Yes, it could have been better, but I still enjoyed it despite its faults.
The Winter’s Tale continues its run at the Garrick Theatre until 16th January 2016. For further details visit the website. The mobile app Today Tix runs a ticket lottery for the front row each day of the performance, where if successful you will be able to buy up to two tickets for £15 each. The play will also be screened live in cinemas on 26th November.