The Winter’s Tale

Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley in The Winter's Tale Photo credit: Johan Persson
Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley in The Winter’s Tale
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday saw the official opening of the year-long Branagh residency at the Garrick Theatre, starting with a matinée of The Winter’s Tale.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known and rarely performed plays, The Winter’s Tale tells the story of Leontes (King of Sicilia) and the consequences of his suspicions over the relationship between his wife, Hermione, and childhood best friend, Polixenes (King of Bohemia). It doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional genres of play; perhaps the best way to describe it is a ‘tragicomedy’. The play examines the psychology of jealousy, all the more destructive when it takes hold of someone in power – the once peaceful king turns into something of a tyrant. Shakespeare most likely wrote the play about a third of the way into the reign of James I, a few years after the Gunpowder Plot, so these scenes could easily serve as a bit of a warning to the still relatively new king.

This production seems to be set in Edwardian times, around Christmas. This is quite sweetly set up by a group of revellers walking through the auditorium playing ‘Deck the Halls’ and throwing artificial snow over the audience (some other cast members are stood up at dress circle level) – as well as having a magnificent Christmas tree on the stage itself. The festive theme is dispensed with, never to be alluded to again, following the opening scene – but then, things do take a darker turn so this is perhaps understandable. There are some really nice costumes on show throughout the course of the play, and some lovely sets (especially the ‘winter palace’ idea towards the end, as the statue is unveiled). The infamous stage direction “exit, pursued by a bear” is dealt with partly predictably (sound effects) and partly in quite an odd fashion, briefly flapping a curtain down with a depiction of a bear on it; a bit of a false ending to the first act. To be frank, the sound effect would probably suffice – it’s not ground-breaking, but it’s not ridiculous or confusing either.

Hadley Fraser and Kenneth Branagh in The Winter's Tale Photo credit: Johan Persson
Hadley Fraser and Kenneth Branagh in The Winter’s Tale
Photo credit: Johan Persson

I have to talk about the cast. This is, after all, why the run sold out quite so quickly!

Dame Judi Dench is so obviously brilliant it’s almost pointless saying it! She is spirited as noblewoman Paulina, but it is as Time that she really shines. That monologue, announcing the passing of 16 years since the events in the first act, is beautifully written and beautifully (& subtly) performed.

Miranda Raison (Hermione) and Hadley Fraser (Polixenes) are enjoyable – the latter particularly in the second act when in disguise at the sheep shearing. Jessie Buckley is fun & full of life as Perdita, and works well alongside Tom Bateman (Florizel). It is a shame that Florizel doesn’t feature enormously in the play, as it almost seems like a bit of a waste of Bateman’s talents (see Da Vinci’s Demons, Shakespeare in Love, Jekyll & Hyde).

I’d say the same of Autolycus, played brilliantly by John Dagleish. It’s as if life imitates art somehow; Dagleish steals every scene, just as Autolycus picks every pocket! He shows off so many skills, from an array of accents to singing, playing & dancing – Dagleish brings a characteristic physicality to the role, and his commitment to the part is obvious.

Jimmy Yuill & Jack Colgrave Hirst as the Shepherd & his son (Clown) are also a bit of comic relief from the end of the first act onwards.

Some of the accents employed were… Interesting. I’m not sure Adam Garcia quite managed to hide his native Australian enough, though his portrayal of Amadis was good – and I was very confused about the range of accents at the sheep shearing in Bohemia. Some stereotypical country bumpkin, some northern… Surely it’s best to stick to one and leave it at that?

Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale Photo credit: Johan Persson
Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Branagh (Leontes) is the real weak link in this production. Prior to this season I’d never seen him onstage before, barely even seen him in anything onscreen, so I was excited as he obviously came with a brilliant reputation. Particularly as a Shakespearean actor. So imagine my disappointment when it turned out he didn’t seem to know how to act! Old school, to the extreme. Whilst others around him continue acting even when it isn’t their turn to speak, most of the time Branagh chooses to declaim his lines (alternatively, to quote a friend, the “delivery of a Dalek”) and stand there motionless when he has no words. I struggled to contain my laughter at his pitiful attempt at crying – it genuinely sounds like he’s constipated, or perhaps passing a kidney stone.

Consequently, the first act does feel a bit like torture at times – though, thanks to Dagleish and the likes, the second is far more enjoyable. Yes, this is in part down to the writing, but with better acting you wouldn’t need the light relief quite as much as you do in this production.

John Dagleish in The Winter's Tale Photo credit: Johan Persson
John Dagleish in The Winter’s Tale
Photo credit: Johan Persson

My verdict? Nice enough, but lacking ambition – though I’d happily watch the second act on multiple occasions.

Rating: 3*

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Garrick Theatre until 16 January 2016. Today Tix runs a ticket lottery for front row seats and there are still some hotel packages available. Ring 0330 333 4811 to check further availability.


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