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It’s Judi Dench whose face appears on the publicity for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale, which launches a year-long season in the West End. Aptly so, it turns out, for it is the women who shine in this handsome, but curiously mixed production.
Branagh’s staging of Shakespeare’s late fable, co-directed with Rob Ashford, is set, sumptuously, in Edwardian times: a dusting of snow falls on the audience as the curtain lifts on a cheerful Christmas party; affectionate friends and family exchange gifts in a rich, warm interior. The assembly watches a flickering black and white film of King Leontes and his old friend Polixenes frolicking as boyhood chums. All the more shocking then when Leontes (Branagh) is suddenly seized with a violent and irrational jealousy of Polixenes (Hadley Fraser), succumbing so rapidly to his paranoia that he orders his friend to be killed and his wife, Hermione, to be imprisoned.
The setting and the film suggest interesting insights into this bizarre behaviour, evoking a patriarchal society and an upper class insecure about women and female sexuality. Is Leontes’ jealousy driven partly by his fear that he will be supplanted in his friend’s affections by his wife? Leontes’ buttoned-up kingdom here contrasts starkly with bucolic Bohemia, where men rip off their shirts and frolic lustily with the girls at the sheep shearing festival.
These are intriguing possibilities, but they are not explored in great psychological detail. Meanwhile the production succumbs on a regular basis to an odd, old-fashioned staginess, with Branagh the chief culprit. He can be very moving — realising the wrong he has done, his Leontes sinks into a silent, hollow-eyed collapse; at the final reconciliation with Hermione his high, broken delivery of the words, “she’s warm”, is deeply touching. But too often he seems to be telegraphing his emotions, rather than inhabiting them: afflicted with jealousy or grief, he staggers, clutches his stomach or wheels around. It is strangely overblown.
Michael Pennington and John Shrapnel put in fine work as lords. But it is in the women that the staging really finds its heart. This is partly because of the setting: both the male-dominated period and the Christmas opening highlight their significance as the route to forgiveness and rebirth. But it is also partly down to the beautiful performances of Miranda Raison, Jessie Buckley and Judi Dench. Buckley finds a joyous, uncomplicated sensuality in Perdita, the lost daughter, and Raison brings radiant integrity to Hermione. Dench meanwhile is superb as wise noblewoman Paulina: grounded and nuanced, her wrath flecked with compassion, her sharp reprimands with sorrow. The whole company delivers the magical reconciliation scene with poignant tenderness. But often, elsewhere, less would be more.
It shows generosity and wit to run The Winter’s Tale in repertory with Harlequinade. This rarely performed 1948 Terence Rattigan comedy sends up a theatre company touring with a couple of dog-eared Shakespeare productions and even has faint echoes of The Winter’s Tale: a lost daughter turns up, to cataclysmic effect.
There’s a great deal of daft, droll humour spun out of backstage chaos and there’s a plot, of sorts. Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off has rather upstaged the play, but still, this is an infectiously warm-hearted production. Branagh is very funny as an actor-manager so self-absorbed that he would miss the arrival of the apocalypse, Raison complements him as a sweetly manipulative leading lady and Zoë Wanamaker is enjoyable as a boozy old thesp who has been touring since the Neolithic era.
And Wanamaker excels in a short curtain raiser before Harlequinade: All On Her Own, a Rattigan monologue for a cripplingly lonely widow. Wanamaker’s crisp, bullish performance, as she drinks her way through a decanter of whisky, talking the while to her dead husband, is a painfully moving study in grief and remorse that quietly links back to Leontes.
‘The Winter’s Tale’ will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide on November 26, branaghtheatre.com