When Kenneth Branagh announced the formation of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company in April 2015, the West End was understandably buzzing with excitement. The last time Branagh had graced the boards in London, he won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for the title role in Ivanov. Now back with a series of plays in which he combines his gift for acting with an established directing career, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company includes young and old performers alike and is drawing some of the very best in British talent to the Garrick Theatre for the next year. Kicking off the series with The Winter’s Tale, Branagh has brought one of the West End’s elite, Judi Dench, back to the stage.
One of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, The Winter’s Tale is written in two almost entirely different emotional guises. King Leontes of Sicilia (Branagh) begins to suspect that his wife Hermione (Miranda Raison) and his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Hadley Fraser) are lovers. As this kernel of an idea takes hold and Leontes (Branagh) descends into madness, he orders the pregnant queen to be locked up and is not even swayed when loyal friend Paulina (Dench) presents him with his newly born daughter Perdita. Fearing for the child, Paulina and husband Antigonus (Michael Pennington) steal Perdita away to Bohemia, whilst the mad king realises his mistake all too late after hearing of the death of his beloved wife.
Time (Dench) then intervenes, moving the story forward sixteen years and focusing on the life of grown-up Perdita (Jessie Buckley) and her adopted family. Perdita has fallen for Florizel (Tom Bateman) who unbeknownst to her is prince of Bohemia and is determined to marry her without his father Polixenes’s (Fraser) approval. Comedic chaos ensues at the harvest festival, no thanks to pedlar Autolycus (John Dagleish), before Polixenes discovers his son’s deception. The young couple flee to Sicilia, followed by Polixenes, where Perdita and the Bohemian king are eventually reunited with their father and friend Leontes.
From the first scene in this incredible show, the quality of the production is apparent. The artistic vision of Branagh, fellow director/choreographer Rob Ashford and set and costume designer Christopher Oram transforms the stage into an opulent, almost operatic setting for the tale to unfold. Sets of velvet red and gold are slowly replaced by icy blues as the king’s madness sets in and the frost on his heart hardens his countenance. The harvest scenes on Bohemia are rustic and rural, typically dressed in late summer/early autumn yellows and oranges that lift the spirits of cast and audience alike. A particular highlight is the abandoning of baby Perdita on the shores of Bohemia by Antigonus (Pennington), where storm clouds projected onto the scene slowly gather and indicate the impending danger as famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” seals Antigonus’s fate.
All of the artistic vision provides the perfect setting for some truly memorable acting. As Leontes, Branagh is the central glue that holds the performance together and is admirable in his characterisation. An absolute master of the craft, he conveys Leontes’s inner turmoil in every expression and movement. The initial suspicion of his wife’s cuckoldry; the descent into madness; his anguish and repentance at hearing of her death; all of these are delivered with overwhelming force, leaving no doubt as to the king’s unstable emotional state. With such a range of emotions on display, Branagh can truly be considered a great of current British theatre.
So too, of course, is Judi Dench. As Paulina, Dench similarly follows the king’s emotional journey and is powerful, staunch and magnetic in her delivery. There is such an intricate understanding of text that effortlessly comes through in her performance – a true ability to recite the language as if it weren’t conceived hundreds of years ago. As such, Paulina in this production is able to plead with Leontes as an equal, rebuking him without fear of his status because ultimately she acts as an arbiter of truth. This unrelenting gravitas is one of Dench’s greatest qualities and shines through in every single line. As a combination, Branagh and Dench are breathtaking to behold.
It would be so easy to be outshone by this duo, but the quality in the remainder of the cast is apparent when they more than hold their own on stage with these two unstoppable forces. The voices of Perdita (Buckley) and Autolycus (Dagleish) throughout the harvest festival are gutsy and strong, emphasising the comedy and light-heartedness in the act. Dagleish is a loveable rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step, Buckley a flighty yet innocent damsel that nevertheless appears more mature than her years when her marriage to Florizel (Bateman) seems on the rocks. Queen Hermione (Raison) by contrast is regal and stoic, not daring to argue fruitlessly with her husband’s condemnations until the time is right. When she states her case there is ebb and flow in her reasoning that come to a climax in an impassioned speech. Not to be outdone by the youngsters, Camillo (John Shrapnel) does anything but fade into the background as the faithful servant to both kings – Shrapnel brings just the right amount of pace and consideration into his dialogue.
There are plays that quickly become the highlight of the year and there are plays that strike a chord so deep in oneself that they will resonate for many more to come. The Winter’s Tale is one of these. The beauty, majesty and utter perfection that shine from start to end in this production are not easily forgotten. A privilege to watch – spellbinding, otherworldly, magical.
The Winter’s Tale is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 16 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Nimax Theatres website. Photo: Johan Persson.