The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Presents 'The Winter's Tale'

Sydney Arts Guide, 23 January 2016
By Lynne Lancaster
Thanks, Lynne

This is the opening production of a year long season at the Garrick Theatre in London by Sir Kenneth Branagh’s new company and it is off to a splendid start with this magnificent production which has just completed its sold out season.

The production opens with the tinkling of a music box. At first it all seems quite a traditional Victorian era Christmas, with the court full of festive cheer, carols and snowflakes and where they all watch a black and white, rather grainy boyhood home movie of the king of Sicily, Leontes, and his best friend Polixenes King of Bohemia. (The home movie reminded me of footage of the ill- fated Romanovs , and young Maxmillius (Pierre Atri) wears a sailor suit like Tsarevitch Alexei).

The costumes are roughly indicative of the late-Victorian, early-Edwardian era. The lighting by Neil Austin is magnificent.

There is a dark, Dickensian, hidden underside to this comparatively speaking traditional production of the play. Suddenly everything becomes extremely real, dark and definitely not romantic, as Leontes (Branagh), somehow, Othello like, gets the wrong idea that his innocent wife Hermione and Polixenes have been having an affair. In this version, however, there are hints of homoerotic desire – that Branagh’s extremely impressive Leontes is driven less by insane jealousy over his wife’s possible adultery than by the possible loss of Polixenes’s presence and love.

Sir Kenneth Branagh as Leontes is tremendous. His febrile suspicion erupts ( ‘too hot , too hot “ ) in a starkly, dramatically lit monologue. His breathing quickens, his eyes blaze. He can’t be moved from his mad obsession. Leontes won’t listen, and he becomes a man obsessed, fueled by demons.

His madness starts quietly, talking to himself, charmingly talking to his son then suddenly jumping to obsession again and then his madness rages. Branagh in this tremendous performance embraces the chaos within his role.

Dame Judi Dench regally endows Paulina with wisdom and compassion. She makes her character a kind of female Prospero, a sort of a mistress of ceremonies, strong, firm, articulate and able to work ‘magic’.

Paulina is at her most tender when displaying new born Perdita to Leontes, hoping that this might soften him. Her compassion is combined with her truth telling defiance. In some ways she is the real power behind the throne in Sicily. Dench also doubles as the character, Time.

Michael Pennington is wonderful as loyal, torn, unfortunate Antigonus , Paulina’s husband , ‘pursued by a bear’.

John Shrapnel subtly plays his character, a trustworthy man who falls foul from the fickle politics around him.

Beautiful, elegant Miranda Raison is splendid as the gracious, troubled and, wronged Queen Hermione. She is both coldly formal,regal and blazing. Hermione is charming and pleasant in the opening scene yet she glacially controls her anger when she is later falsely accused of wrong doing. She speaks of her “honour, graciousness and dignity.”

In this version the rustic scenes in Bohemia are played as an European fertility rite where the male shepherds strip as they dance. The dancing to accordion, drum and squeeze-box is bold and exuberant.

In Bohemia Jessie Buckley is delightful as grown up Perdita, who sees herself as a shepherdess - a free spirit - yet ‘carries’ a bit of Ophelia in her, especially in the scene where she hands out flowers to her friends and acts as hostess/Queen of the shearing. This scene features wonderful, celebratory lighting for the sunset scene).

Errol Flynn look alike, the dashing Tom Bateman is great as Prince Florizel, enchanted by his flame Perdita and willing to give up everything for love.

John Dagleish is a nimble-fingered, tall, shrewdly conning Fagin-like Autolycus, who also has a touch of the Irish blarney about him.

Back in the court of Sicily we meet Leontes, now an aged, sombre figure, with the palace like marble ice and snow melting on to his coat. The recognition and reconciliation scene with the ‘statue’ of Hermoine displayed in a kiosk box, all organised by Paulina’s ‘magic’, is magnificently played out.

Very poignantly performed with its evocative cycle of lost and found, this is a magical production – a fractured fairytale that redeems itself.

Running time- 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of the Bard’s THE WINTER’S TALE, co-directed by Rob Ashford and Branagh, screens at selected arthouse cinemas between January 29 and February 4.

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