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The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company kicks off its inaugural, year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End with a curious theatrical triptych — two shows built from three different pieces by two different playwrights, all outlined in one billing block in the program that covers a common cast, the direction credited to Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, and set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Do the math, and together they add up to one long, by turns sad, funny and nostalgic meditation on regret, familial feeling and theatricality itself.
First, if not foremost, comes The Winter’s Tale, a respectable, crowd-pleasing, somewhat stolid interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s less frequently staged works, although the play’s reputation has grown in literary circles over the last 30 years or so. It shares use of the Garrick boards with two even less well-known one-act works by Terence Rattigan: All On Her Own, a 1968 written-for-TV drama, which is performed back-to-back, without an intermission, with a spirited rendition of Rattigan’s 1948 backstage farce Harlequinade.
The three works might seem like a random mix, but it turns out that The Winter’s Tale is namechecked directly in Harlequinade, while All On Her Own features Zoe Wanamaker in glorious form as a woman wracked with guilt — like a female version of Leontes in the Shakespeare play — over her unkind treatment of her late spouse.
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Unsurprisingly, given its name recognition and the fact that it’s the only production featuring Judi Dench, The Winter’s Tale is proving the bigger box-office draw. The run is already sold out, and patrons are booking advance tickets to see the live show digitally broadcast into cinemas across the U.K. and Europe on Nov. 26, and onto North American screens Nov. 30.
Seeing the show in a movie theater may induce deja vu for viewers familiar with Branagh’s Shakespeare films, so clearly does it share their aesthetic DNA. Starting back in 1989 with Henry V and right through to the damp squib of his last, As You Like It in 2006, Branagh used to churn those films out semi-regularly before he moved into the big-budget leagues, directing Marvel’s Thor and Disney’s Cinderella.
Here once again is yet more tastefully competent, handsomely cast Bard-bothering — all crisply enunciated right down to the last, penultimately stressed syllable, sprinkled with a teensy bit of innovation but never enough to frighten the horses. For example, a frisson of homoerotic desire between Branagh’s Leontes and Polixenes (Hadley Fraser) puts his jealous rage with Hermione (Miranda Raison) in a newish light, although other productions have gone with this interpretation before.
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There are tiny liberties taken with the text, such as moving the scene involving the very meta line of the young doomed Maxmillius (Pierre Atri), about how “a sad tale’s best for winter.” It arrives just after the curtain rises and he shares the scene with Dench’s Paulina (instead of Hermione, per the original text). Later, Dench gets to deliver the chorus-like speech from Time itself after intermission. One gets the sense that if the company could have gotten away with using the 80-year-old star to play the singing charlatan Autolycus, plus maybe a shepherdess or two in order to maximize her stage time, they would have. After all, she played Hermione back in 1969 in Trevor Nunn’s production.
Like nearly every one of Branagh’s Shakespeare films, the set and costumes suggest a non-Renaissance time. In this case, it’s vaguely late-Victorian, early-Edwardian era. The period setting doesn’t seem brazenly wrong but it doesn’t really add much of anything either, except to make the whole show feel a bit more Christmassy — especially with a tinsel-decked tree onstage and fake snow sprinkled over the audience from the balcony by the cast.
At least it goes well enough with the “magic trick” at the end, when Paulina brings Hermione’s “statue” to life — though the way certain lines are emphasized underscores the suggestion right there in the text that the only trick was fooling Leontes into thinking she was ever really dead. With all the sparkle spray on the flats, and Patrick Doyle’s very Hollywood musical underscoring in the background, it starts to look a little like Shakespeare for a generation raised on Frozen.
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In that laudable, pop-feminist spirit, Ashford, Branagh and the cast take pains to make the female characters come across as imposingly as possible. Raison’s elegant Hermione, Jessie Buckley’s giddy but delightful Perdita and Dench’s imperious Paulina emotionally and physically anchor every scene they’re in, holding the center-stage high moral ground. Nowhere is that more true than of Dench. With her rasp of a voice, glittering eyes (the only evidence here of the actor’s real-life visual problems) and regal hauteur, she transforms the character into a witchy prestidigitator, a female Prospero of sorts. Her Paulina is the real power in Sicilia even if Leontes wears the nominal crown.
Mind you, it’s not hard to outshine Branagh’s weirdly unconvincing tyrant. His gestural, hammy display of grief when he realizes the error of his ways is so brazenly unconvincing you start to wonder if it’s the actor-director’s deliberate way of sabotaging any sympathy for the character.
Branagh is vastly more impressive and charming in Harlequinade, in a role that affords him a chance to display coming timing calibrated to the micron, along with the rest of the cast.
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Sending himself up, Branagh casts himself as Arthur Gosport, the aging manager-leading man in a traveling troupe of players paid by the Arts Council to bring culture to the regions in 1946, the same year the national health service was introduced to Britain. And so Arthur and his airy wife, Edna (Raison again), find themselves somewhere in the Midlands trying to have a dress rehearsal for their production of Romeo and Juliet, even if they’re both too old to play the leads. Naturally, everything is going wrong: The stage manager (the delicious Tom Bateman, also Florizel in Winter’s Tale) is being pressured to pack in his job by his bossy fiancee (Kathryn Wilder); a young local woman (Buckley) shows up claiming to be Arthur’s long lost daughter; and even the halberdiers are having identity crises.
The text might seem like the sort of daft, dated Grand Marnier souffle of confused identities and outrageous coincidences that’s been done thousands of times before (how is it possible Anthony Asquith didn’t direct a version?). But it’s satisfying to see it done so well. Indeed, even Branagh himself has already done the material in a way with his 1995 feature In the Bleak Midwinter (aka A Midwinter’s Tale), a droll black-and-white film he wrote and directed about an ill-fated provincial production of Hamlet. In that movie, Joan Collins had a bit of fun as the main character’s grande-dame agent. Here, Wanamaker gets to fill the same function, playing a booming-voiced dipsomaniac stage veteran who coaxes laughs just by the way she carries a little brown pocketbook on stage with her while wearing full Nurse costume.
That remarkable voice of Wanamaker’s gets an even flashier showcase with All On Her Own, the salty-sour amuse-bouche that precedes Harlequinade. As Rosemary, a sozzled Hampstead lady of a certain age, she does dialogue with herself, both in the affected, not-quite-convincing posh voice of her character and then as Rosemary, impersonating her dead Northern-accented husband Gregory as she tries to puzzle out whether he killed himself. It’s a small but tightly written work, and a short, sharp stab of loneliness and self-loathing. Perhaps Wanamaker should have played Leontes in The Winter’s Tale as well.
Cast: Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Jessie Buckley, Vera Chok, John Dagleish, Judi Dench, Hadley Fraser, John Colgrave Hirst, Michael Pennington, Miranda Raison, John Shrapnel, Zoe Wanamaker
Playwrights: Terence Rattigan, William Shakespeare
Directors: Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh
Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Music: Patrick Doyle
Projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Presented by Fiery Angel, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
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