'The Winter's Tale' Review – Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench Offer Intriguing Touches
In a Production Unafraid to Hint at the Darker Elements of Shakespeare’s Fable, Branagh and Dench Are Surrounded By a First-rate Team

The Guardian, 8 November 2015
By Michael Billington

The image of the West End suddenly brightens with the arrival of a six-play Kenneth Branagh season lasting a year. But, although Branagh stars in four of the productions and is involved in directing three of them, this feels like a company venture rather than an actor-manager ego-trip.

At first, it looks as if we are in for a romantic reading of 'The Winter’s Tale', co-directed by Rob Ashford and Branagh. We are, in Christopher Oram’s design, at a Christmas court full of snowflakes, carols and cheerful festivity, where everyone sits down to watch a home movie of the king, Leontes, and his chum Polixenes in their romping boyhood.

But there are strong hints that Branagh’s fine Leontes is driven less by insane jealousy over his wife’s possible adultery than by the loss of Polixenes’s love. Hadley Fraser’s Polixenes refers to women as “temptations”, while Branagh himself spits out words like “sluiced” and “slippery” as if disgusted by female sexuality and eagerly kisses his male courtiers. The implication is that this is a man still haunted by an idyllic boyhood attachment.

That is only one of several intriguing touches in what superficially looks like an orthodox production. Judi Dench plays the truth-telling Paulina not as the usual angry scold but as a woman whose capacity for defiance masks a deep compassion for wayward humanity: the moment I shall long remember from this production is when Dench, having regretted her verbal rashness, gazes at Branagh’s shrunken, guilt-ridden Leontes with a silent sorrow.

Even the rustic scenes in Bohemia, translated over the years to everything from a hippie Haight-Ashbury to Glastonbury, are here played as a decidedly east European fertility rite where the male shepherds strip as they dance and where Jessie Buckley’s Perdita positively glows with erotic fervour.

Although this production ends, unfashionably, in unequivocal forgiveness, it is not afraid to hint at the darker elements in Shakespeare’s fable.

Branagh and Dench are surrounded by a first-rate team. Miranda Raison lends the wronged and persecuted Hermione a shining self-belief, Michael Pennington brings a lifetime’s Shakespearean experience to the role of the bear-pursued Antigonus and John Dagleish is a suitably nimble-fingered Autolycus. You go to see the stars and, in the words of a Sondheim song, in comes company.

• At Garrick, London, until 16 January. Box office: 0330 333 4811. Tickets available at Guardian box office. The Winter’s Tale will be broadcast live to cinemas on 26 January.

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