Kenneth Branagh Season Storms Out Of The Gate

Londonist, 9 November 2015
By James FitzGerald

Its fresh carpets unstained by soda spillages, its buoyant new upholstery as yet unwearied by bum upon bum, the recently restored Garrick Theatre is by all accounts a more liveable space — and once the curtain has lifted tonight to reveal a lavish yuletide set, you’d be forgiven for assuming this is to be a very cosy experience. Why, who are those figures we spot on stage? It’s only Judi Dench (as Paulina) and Kenneth Branagh (playing King Leontes) frolicking under the Christmas tree with Leontes’s son Mamillius. Aww.

But. It’s a “sad tale” that’s truly best for winter, if we’re to believe the words of young Mamillius. Branagh has played the Bard’s mad kings once or twice before, apparently — and in this performance of Leontes, he alternates splendidly between paranoia and quivering lament. He accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of an affair with his oldest friend Polixenes. He's forced to flee back home while Hermione is slammed in jail, where she gives birth to her second child and then, we're told, dies.

Shakespeare’s play then spends a period, quite literally, in the wilderness. Leontes looks upon Hermione’s baby as the offspring of Polixenes, and orders it be removed from Sicily. Perdita, as this princess will be known, ends up abandoned in that most fantastical Shakespearean location: the desert of Bohemia (modern Czech Republic), a landlocked kingdom which the old man Antigonus improbably reaches by a boat, and meets his end at the claws of that bear.

Returning after the interval you’d assume you’ve walked back into the wrong play, such is the playwright’s use of the handbrake turn. Tragedy crumbles into comedy: we meet a grown-up Perdita, who has been raised by countryside rustics. These pastoral scenes can only mean lengthy passages of singing and dancing — which you suspect were funnier in the 17th century, but which are indulged with real gusto all the same.

Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford handle the sharp change in direction well: accentuating the passage of time in character details. Back in the court in Sicily, Christopher Oram’s evocative set design once more comes into play; the Christmas décor is gone, and the metaphorical torpor of January has arrived. A wifeless, heirless Leontes veritably shivers in regret amid ice-coloured furnishings.

There will be reconciliations, but we won’t spoil those here. Although the enchantment and magic is back by the end, the source material leaves us with nagging dissatisfactions. This is a confounding play in which lots of the key events are actually hidden from the audience. But Branagh and co deal with that by ensuring the characters look capable of unending wildness. The climax is warm and fuzzy — but we nonetheless exit pursued by cares.

The name Branagh might now be synonymous with Shakespeare, but to raise the curtain on his year-long residence at the Garrick Theatre, Ken has chosen not only 'The Winter’s Tale', but a double-header consisting of two very different plays by another of his inspirations — Terence Rattigan. They are 'Harlequinade' (1948) and 'All On Her Own' (1968); by turns farcical and tragic, but both highly tender works in their shared concern with marital doting, age and loss.

The man himself plays Arthur Gosport: an ageing theatre producer-cum-actor contending with the many mishaps which threaten to derail the opening night of 'Romeo and Juliet' in a Midlands theatre — whether it’s the revelation that he is an accidental bigamist, or the blasted National Insurance paperwork. Rattigan was inspired by contemporary initiatives to spread the arts beyond London, perceptively spotting the capabilities for amusing culture clashes.

Preceding 'Harlequinade' is 'All On Her Own': a brief but memorable one-woman show plucked from Rattigan’s less celebrated later oeuvre. A terrific Zoe Wanamaker plays Rosemary, a widow who glugs whisky and tries to hold a conversation with her dead husband. Impersonating his Yorkshire accent, Wanamaker verily becomes the deceased man via the minutiae of poignant character details. “You thought Kafka was a government department…”

Pacing, emotionally crumbling, questioning whether she drove him to his death, the wife seems less of a “solid” force than the husband in Wanamaker’s performance. Neil Austin's lighting is a key player: vast shadows dance behind Wanamaker, like ghosts come to cruelly mock her loneliness. This is as lightning-quick as 20 minutes can go; it’s a virtuoso turn which bodes well for the rest of this high-profile season.

'The Winter’s Tale' runs until 16 January 2016 at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH. Tickets from £15. 'Harlequinade/All On Her Own' runs until 13 January 2016 at The Garrick Theatre. Tickets from £15. Londonist saw these performances with a complimentary ticket.

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