The Winter's Tale Review: Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench Superb In Dazzling Shakespearean Showcase

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 2016
By Peter Craven
Thanks, Jane

It's been almost 46 years since Melbourne saw Judi Dench doubling as Hermione and Perdita, mother and daughter, in Trevor Nunn's triumphant production of 'The Winter's Tale' with Elizabeth Spriggs in role of the older woman Paulina. Now Dench is playing Paulina herself to Kenneth Branagh's Leontes, and they're both superb.

'The Winter's Tale' is arguably the greatest of Shakespeare's late plays, his romances, and it is a dazzling demonstration of the range of his dramatic skills.

We begin with Leontes in a tragic fit of jealousy an abridged Othello without an Iago and then witness the terrible effect of his delusion. But in the second half of the play, we hit the domain of frolic and music. Finally, under the auspices of Paulina one of the greatest Shakespearean character roles for an actress we witness miracle and resurrection.

Branagh's co-production with Rob Ashford delivers on this dazzling showcase of songs and sorrows with luxurious casting and a rich traditional production, which is crowned by a luminous performance from Dench and Branagh's own masterful and virtuoso characterisation of Leontes through every frenetic tone colour of neuroticism to the sombre understatement, then rapture, of the last movement.

Branagh gives a master class in how to do Shakespeare in a contemporary idiom while retaining the ghosts and echoes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. With Dench, the technique is invisible because the inhabitation of the role is so absolute.

The setting hovers begins as Edwardian and then jumps to the 1920s. If Christopher Oram's set design at first seems cluttered, this tallies with the suffocation of Leontes' mind. After tsarist black and white footage of boys in sailor suits, there is the burnt sunshine of the country high jinks in the second half.

All this production exhibits Branagh's largesse in casting. Miranda Raison (Jo in Spooks) has a grandeur, as well as a tenderness, as Hermione.

And Branagh has instilled a classicism in his company that puts most contemporary Shakespeare to shame in the scale and resonance with which the language is projected.

Michael Pennington, a distinguished Leontes in his day, is Antigonus (the chap who exits pursued by a bear) and it's the richest bit of casting since Geoffrey Rush played Horatio. Elsewhere, Branagh goes for singers. As Perdita, Jessie Buckley who was runner-up in Andrew Lloyd Webber's competition to cast Nancy in 'Oliver!' and as Florizel, Tom Bateman (who'll be seen here in 'Singin' in the Rain' in May). She can really sing and he sounds like he's addressing a football stadium.

This Branagh production burns with the force of everything that's poetic, show-stopping and resplendent, as well as profoundly moving, about his genius.

Branagh looks clearly like the major classical actor of his generation. And then there's Dench acting like a goddess who's also someone's secretary.

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