The Winter's Tale

Theatre, Shakespeare
3 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(5user reviews)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonJudi Dench (Paulina) and Kenneth Branagh (Leontes)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonHadley Fraser (Polixenes) and Kenneth Branagh (Leontes)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonJessie Buckley (Perdita), Jimmy Yuill (The Shepherd) and Tom Bateman (Florizel)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonJohn Dagleish (Autolycus)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonJudi Dench (Paulina) 
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonKenneth Branagh (Leontes)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonMiranda Raison (Hermione) and Kenneth Branagh (Leontes)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonTom Bateman (Florizel) and Jessie Buckley (Perdia) 

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

Read our interview with Dame Judi Dench

By: Andrzej Lukowski


Average User Rating

4.4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:3
  • 3 star:0
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:0
1 person listening

Several years ago at the interval of an RSC production of The Winter's Tale at Washington, DC's prestigious Kennedy Center, my best friend and I, both Shakespearean scholars, heard the poshly-dressed couple next to us start harrumphing in disgust. The husband said, 'Well! I thought this was a comedy!' 'So did I,' proclaimed the wife. The husband then said, 'It's not funny, so let's go' and they did, vacating some rather expensive stalls seats. As they left I yelled out, 'It gets funnier in the second half!'

Yes, the first half of this play, with its accusations of adultery, shocking deaths and cruel trial, is disturbing, and Kenneth Branagh's production certainly emphasizes why 'a sad tale's best for winter' in a frozen 19th-century setting (although why it would be snowing heavily in Sicily is a good question). However, this production seems heavily indebted to the highly-regarded 1999 production in Russian by the Maly Drama Theatre, directed by the masterful Declan Donnellan, which offered an imperialist Russian, Nutcracker-esque stage design and setting. This new production sold out on the strength of its casting, with a superb Judi Dench as Paulina and Branagh as a sometimes lethargic and inconsistent Leontes. Experienced Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington acts Branagh off the stage (as if to say, 'this is how it's done'). Miranda Raison looks the part of the magnificent Hermione, the daughter of the Emperor of Russia, although her often clumsy verse-speaking is a distraction.

The second half of the play is indeed funnier, and the young couple of the lost princess Perdita and her secret prince Florizel, often insipid in other productions, are wonderful here, with a mesmerizing Tom Bateman as Florizel and Jessie Buckley as Perdita, and everything Raison (who plays her mother) is not: enchanting, sympathetic and commanding. Judi Dench famously played both Hermione and Perdita in an RSC production of the play many years ago, and Buckley could easily have done the same to similarly great effect.

The majority of the audience at the performance I saw gave this production a standing ovation, obviously pleased with the Disney-esque staging of the final scene (notoriously involving a statue), although the most famous Shakespearean stage direction of 'Exit, pursued by a bear' was poorly done (and certainly didn't involve an Exit). Kenneth Branagh has done magical things on stage and on film, and if he had only used just a bit more original imagination (and energy in his own performance), this would have been a dazzling production.

I loved this performance, especially the inclusion of mood music here and there. Oftentimes the rumbling of the Bakerloo line just under the Garrick Theater actually enhanced the scene it so clearly interrupted, but police sirens had no such benefit. Pity, the extensive refurbishment of this theater didn't include more sound-proofing efforts.

I saw The Winters Tale in previews and just loved loved loved it.   The curtain rose to the most beautiful set and I lost my heart.  Stirling performances for all, but as Tara P (previous poster) says, Jessie Buckley as Perdita was superb, beautiful, joyous performance that made me smile.  I see a lot of musical theatre and enjoyed the performance of Hadley Fraser who is known to me as a huge musical star, last seen at the Donmar Warehouse in the huge hit City of Angels.  And Adam Garcia, lovely to see him on stage here.

It's not a Shakespeare I know so I'm now reading through it. There wasn't anything in the performance I didn't love, so it's 5***** from me!

I was lucky to have purchased a slightly restricted stalls seat (£50) which was used for camera sights for the upcoming live to cinema screening, so was upgraded to a centre stalls.  


I splashed out on tickets to the opening nights of Branagh's entire season when they launched in April, and I'm glad I did! 

The Winter's Tale was a polished and emotive production, with a pleasing set and excellent performances. Dench and Branagh shined, but my favourite turn was by Jessie Buckley as Perdita - her joyous performance was captivating and I could understand for once why so many of the characters were charmed by her. 

Why does it lose a star? There were several occurrences that dampened the enjoyment of the evening. Firstly, the auditorium was very hot and loud from air conditioning units (that clearly weren't working!) Secondly, the tickets were astonishingly priced for the quality of the view - £50 for the second row of the upper circle, where part of the stage was partially obscured and you were consistently blocked by the people in row A leaning forward. 

The former seems to have been rectified (as I was there again for the Harlequinade this week) but be warned; the tickets can be very overpriced for the view.