The Winter's Tale
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Judi Dench is the saving grace of Kenneth Branagh's overwrought production
If there’s one person who isn’t going to mess up a Shakespeare play, it’s Kenneth Branagh, the high priest of the Bard. Right?
Errrrr, right-ish. The opening show in Sir Ken’s year-long stint of plays at the Garrick is ‘The Winter’s Tale’, which begins as a standard-issue yarn of jealousy and betrayal before going on a notoriously massive diversion through time and space: the second half is set 16 years later.
It’s a flighty play that needs to be taken in hand a bit really, but Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford seem happy to let it gallop off. Thus Branagh’s King Leontes doesn’t just get angry at what he perceives to be the flirtation between his wife Hermione and his best friend Polixenes: he goes completely fucking nuts, staggering and babbling and generally doing a lot of crazy guy acting. But Branagh doesn’t appear to have investigated the how or why: Leontes is fine in the Christmassy opening scene, turns into a raging sociopath for the rest of the first half, then snaps back when the gods punish him for behaviour that seems too insane for him to have any control over.
Still, while Branagh has the biggest role, it’s Dame Judi Dench on the posters, and thank the theatre gods for her. As Hermione’s loyal companion Paulina, she has an easy charm as a twinkly-eyed busybody with hidden depths. She has a lot of lines for a relatively minor role, and she speaks the verse breathtakingly well, investing it with a vibrant effortlessness that shears through the air and stands in total contrast to Branagh’s frantic, distracting busyness.
Giving Branagh and Ashford the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if they’ve deliberately over-egged things to frame ‘The Winter’s Tale’ as a slightly Brothers Grimm-ish morality fable. But if so, it never convinces, and there’s no avoiding the fact that Leontes’s sudden descent into madness veers dangerously close to Stephen Toast territory.
The most baffling thing is how it falls into so many of the thespy pitfalls beautifully sent up in ‘Harlequinade’, the other, concurrently-running opening play in the Branagh season. This company is far too good to actively screw things up, but a production that should have been superlative verges on the clunky. Dench excepted.
'The Winter's Tale' screens in cinemas Novemer 26