The Luminous Judi Dench Gives a Shakespearean Masterclass in Kenneth Branagh's Winter Wonder
Daily Mail, 14 November 2015
The brilliantly precocious Kenneth Branagh was only 26 when he turned actor-manager for the first time and co-founded, with his actor friend David Parfitt, the Renaissance Theatre Company.
Among many highlights in its all too short five-year span was an unusually wintry 'Twelfth Night' set in a snowy Illyria with Richard Briers as an unforgettably bitter and twisted Malvolio, and a blissfully merry 'Much Ado About Nothing', in which Judi Dench directed Branagh and Samantha Bond as the bickering Benedick and Beatrice.
The good news is that Sir Kenneth is back with his own company for a one-year season in the beautifully restored Garrick Theatre.
His first production, superbly co-directed by him and Rob Ashford, is Shakespeare’s late romance, 'The Winter’s Tale', about redemption and regeneration and the miracle that is a second chance. And it reunites him – thrillingly – with Dench.
The curtain rises in Christopher Oram’s stunning design on an idealised, snowy, cosy, Christmas scene in King Leontes’s palace: there’s a huge tree, jolly carollers singing, and family and friends watching a cinefilm of Leontes and his best and oldest friend Polixines, playing together as nippers.
Suddenly everything becomes very real and anything but romantic, as Leontes (Branagh) gets it into his head that his blameless wife Hermione (Miranda Raison, all graciousness and dignity) is having an affair with Polixines, and has been for years.
Branagh’s volcanic eruption into feverish suspicion (‘Too hot, too hot’… ‘My wife is slippery’) is like a seizure, as if his veins are running with molten lava. His eyes blaze, his breath is quick. He’s a man possessed – and ultimately felled – by demons, and it’s terrifying to see. He cannot be moved, not even when he is shown his new-born baby.
This is an exceptionally well-spoken production, but a luminous Judi Dench gives one of her most moving Shakespearean masterclasses. She doubles as the shrewd Paulina – a shrew and a saviour, ensuring Leontes pays for his sins while engineering his redemption – and as the figure of Time, the healer.
The scenes in bucolic Bohemia are also highly charged emotionally – and erotically, too, when the hunky shepherds take their shirts off and flex their pecs.
Jessie Buckley’s golden Perdita glows with health and happiness; John Dagleish (following up on his triumph as Ray Davies in 'Sunny Afternoon') is a Fagin-like cut-purse Autolycus; and the breathtaking, heart-wrenching statue scene plays out as it should, like a miracle.
Running in rep at the Garrick as a double-bill are a missable brace of plays by Terence Rattigan, loosely (and ludicrously) linked thematically with 'The Winter’s Tale'.
In the first,' All On Her Own', Rosemary (Zoe Wanamaker) empties a decanter while conducting an imaginary conversation with her eeh-by-gum northern husband, Gregory, worrying that her insufferable snobbery drove him to suicide.
In 'Harlequinade', a hilarious Kenneth Branagh plays an old ham, Arthur Gosport, touring as Romeo, with Miranda Raison, his off-stage wife, his Juliet – parts for which they are long past their play-by date. Wanamaker also stars.
Expert comic timing from a company having a high old time hamming it up can’t make this into anything more than a love letter to a mercifully lost dramatic age.