'The Winterís Tale', Garrick Theatre, Review: ĎRipe With Operatic Excessí
Women triumph in Branaghís starry rep, but it risks offering more to the actors than its audience, says Marianka Swain

Ham & High, 13 November 2015
By Marianka Swain

Continuing the Olivier comparisons, Kenneth Branagh has established an eponymous rep company and year-long Garrick season. It opens with a problematic Shakespeare problem play and incongruous Rattigan double bill Ė material made financially viable by a starry cast of veterans and bright young things. Theyíre led by Branagh himself, who also co-directs with Rob Ashford.

'The Winterís Tale' gets the Hollywood blockbuster treatment, from intrusive music cues to Christopher Oramís lavish design Ė Nutcracker-esque Victorian Christmas card for the court, with carollers and ice skating, and then a Bohemia so idyllic and fecund itís ripe for 'Cold Comfort Farm' parody.

Presiding over this operatic excess is Leontes, and to make sense of the kingís sudden descent into jealous madness, Branagh plays him as if in a Gothic horror. He strains against demonic possession, roars, paces and melodramatically swoons. Itís a psychological affliction made physical Ė arresting, but ultimately less interesting. Judi Denchís Paulina, in contrast, is strongly grounded. Still robust and magnetic aged 80, the great dame briskly dismisses Leontesís cowed yes-men in her towering defence of the queen, refusing to witness injustice. Her luminously effortless verse speaking proves you donít need histrionics to stir the soul.

Thereís good support, too, from Jessie Buckleyís warmly sensual Perdita, Miranda Raisonís dignified Hermione, John Dagleishís musical rogue Autolycus, John Shrapnelís shrewd Camillo, and Michael Penningtonís doomed Antigonus. But Hadley Fraser and Tom Bateman follow Branaghís example with their hot-headed royal pair, making this a tale of sensible women putting up with loony men. The climactic statue reveal is beautifully done, but, with the play painted in such broad brushstrokes, feels more fairy tale cosy than redemption powerfully won.

Playing in rep is a Rattigan double bill. There are connections with 'The Winterís Tale' Ė long-lost daughters, grieving spouses, disguises and a preoccupation with ageing Ė but itís not a must-see combination. 'All On Her Own' (1968) is the surprise package, an understated 20-minute monologue in which ZoŽ Wanamakerís desolate widow mourns the socially inferior husband she tormented in life. Itís a starkly vulnerable performance, and a more effective illustration than Branaghís Leontes of how persecuting others can be an act of self-harm.

Thatís bizarrely paired with 1948 knockabout backstage comedy 'Harlequinade', essentially 'Kiss Me, Kate' without songs or the first act of 'Noises Off'. Branagh is a hoot as pompous actor/manager Gosport, who leads a bedraggled second-rate rep company taking Shakespeare to the regions. Rattigan snottily dismisses any link between art and social purpose, but brilliantly skewers industry types: Wanamakerís boozy, interfering old-timer; Batemanís put-upon stage manager; Fraserís eager spear-carrier; and Shrapnelís failed actor in crisis.

Did Branagh deliberately programme a critique of luvvie foibles as a commentary on his own overwrought 'Winterís Tale'? Both are commercial draws with this celebrity cast, despite some self-indulgence, but just as Rattiganís myopic thesps canít see a world beyond theatre, so this rep company runs the risk of offering more to its actors than its audiences.

The Winterís Tale rating: 3/5 stars

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