Review: ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ ‘Harlequinade’ and ‘The Moderate Soprano’

New York Times, 19 November 2015
By Matt Wolf
Thanks, Virginia

Kenneth Branagh occupies center stage for much of “The Winter’s Tale,” the Shakespeare play with which he inaugurates the company that bears his name at the Garrick Theater here. Playing the jealous Leontes, Mr. Branagh, a five-time Oscar nominee, has cast himself as the Sicilian monarch who journeys from a madness of sorts — the text describes it as “tremor cordis” — through to forgiveness and redemption.

But for all the attention surrounding Mr. Branagh at the start of an enterprise that also represents his first Shakespearean role on the London stage in well over a decade, the more galvanic reason for the show’s sold-out status is the presence of Judi Dench. The venerable dame, who will be 81 next month, takes the supporting role of Paulina, the voice of moral authority in a play whose leading character acts unconscionably, and anchors a sometimes wayward staging with an authority and presence all her own.

The moment Ms. Dench’s distinctive vocal husk fills the theater — and Mr. Branagh and his American co-director, Rob Ashford, are savvy enough to bring her into the action from the start — one feels in confident, emotionally resonant hands. At a point in life when so many of her generation seem to have left the stage, Ms. Dench transmits a continued devotion to the arena in which she honed her craft, and a hushed audience responds in kind.

The broader public will be able to see Ms. Dench in all her unforced glory when “The Winter’s Tale” is screened in cinemas across Britain and Europe on Nov. 26 and the United States on Nov. 30.

By rights, Mr. Branagh should be a top-rank Leontes, a great role that encompasses all points on an emotional spectrum of rage through remorse, as the king accuses his wife, Hermione (a first-rate Miranda Raison), of adultery only to pay later for his groundless aspersions. In fact, Mr. Branagh often seems to be striking multiple poses rather than inhabiting the role from within: Anger toward an errant spouse one minute, grief at the death of a child the next. The posturing that results allows an elegantly coiffed Ms. Dench to walk away with a show in which she has also been handed the brief but significant part of Time. And why not, given an actress whose luster transcends the years?

“The Winter’s Tale” seems to be everywhere at the moment. The same text is put to thematic use in the Anna Ziegler play “Photograph 51,” which finishes an acclaimed West End run on Saturday, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe will mount a separate production early next year, directed by Michael Longhurst.

It also gets name-checked in “Harlequinade,” the 1948 comedy that forms the longer half of a double bill of Terence Rattigan plays, also from Mr. Branagh’s company, that are running in repertory with “The Winter’s Tale” into January. Far less substantial (intentionally so) than Shakespeare’s late-career romance, Rattigan’s affectionate look at the thespian temperament also makes for a more accomplished production overall, and one that finds a goateed Mr. Branagh in happier form.

Here, the real-life actor-manager plays Arthur Gosport, the obliviously vainglorious actor-manager of a touring troupe in post-World War II England who are about to perform “Romeo and Juliet.” So what if Arthur and his wife, Edna (Ms. Raison again, and still terrific), are too old to play Shakespeare’s love-struck teenagers?

The environment grows increasingly panicky as the company is beset by issues that include how much to dim the lights to minimize any traitorous wrinkles, a baby waiting offstage to be introduced to its bigamous father, several actors who find themselves sharing the same crucial line, and a busybody acting grandee (Zoe Wanamaker) who happens to be Arthur’s mother and is fond of instructing her daughter-in-law on the proper way to play Juliet.

Originally intended as a divertissement from the emotional ravages of Rattigan’s “The Browning Version,” with which it was first paired in performance, “Harlequinade” is the main meal here. Its companion is a brief monologue, “All On Her Own,” that finds Ms. Wanamaker in baleful form as the whiskey-guzzling widow of a husband whose death she is trying, not very successfully, to process; her acting trumps the somewhat standard-issue writing.

That said, in ordinary circumstances, “Harlequinade” would probably be little more than a footnote to the list of plays about theater people that extends from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “Noises Off” and beyond.

But with Mr. Ashford once again at his directorial side, Mr. Branagh sustains the buoyant self-regard of a piece that at times disparages the solipsism of Rattigan’s chosen profession while ultimately remaining in its thrall.

That tension is beautifully embodied by Tom Bateman, a commendably vigorous Florizel (the intended of Leontes’s daughter, Perdita) in “The Winter’s Tale,” who reappears, hair slicked back, to play a stage manager caught between his fiancée (Kathryn Wilder) and the real love of his life — namely, the stage.

It is no surprise in context that the cast of characters includes a veteran performer who wants out — a nifty turn from John Shrapnel — only to decide by the final curtain that he cannot stay away. Throw in Mr. Branagh clearly having a field day (his wig-related gags are themselves worth the price of admission), and this slightest of plays is served up as a proper soufflé.

As more proof that playwrights continue to be drawn to the world of creative endeavor, along comes David Hare’s “The Moderate Soprano,” which takes as its topic the origins in the 1930s of the ever-elegant Glyndebourne Festival Opera, south of London. The production, directed by the 2015 Tony nominee Jeremy Herrin (“Wolf Hall”), is at the Hampstead Theater through Nov. 28.

The lyric soprano of the title refers to Audrey Mildmay, the wife of Glyndebourne’s founder, John Christie (Roger Allam), and is here played by the immoderately gifted Nancy Carroll. The limpid Ms. Carroll, who won an Olivier Award in 2011 for yet another Rattigan play, “After the Dance,” has a casual allure that is essential to a work that might otherwise consist of a lot of men talking operatic shop.

“The Moderate Soprano” would benefit from somewhat less exposition about the German influences on the early days of Glyndebourne and more stage time for the partnership between the couple at its capacious heart — not least because of the easy and evident rapport between Ms. Carroll and Mr. Allam.

The two are at their rending best in a scene late in the intermissionless work in which an ailing, now-blind Audrey finds comfort in her husband’s roll call of the Mozart-heavy seasons that marked out Glyndebourne’s early years. Reciting “Don Giovanni” and “Cosí Fan Tutte” among other titles like an incantatory prayer, Mr. Allam locates the intersection between art and life in that single and abiding place called love.

The Winter’s Tale. Directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh. Garrick Theater. Through Jan. 16.
Harlequinade/All On Her Own. Directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh. Garrick Theater. Through Jan. 13.
The Moderate Soprano. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Hampstead Theater. Through Nov. 28.

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