Earlier this week, I had a chance to catch the cinema broadcast of the London production of The Winter’s Tale, from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, starring Kenneth Branagh, and directed by Rob Ashford and–you guessed it–Kenneth Branagh. I’m not sure if he took the tickets and showed the live audience to their seats or not.
All Branagh-ball-busting aside, this is a beautiful production. The sets and lighting, by Christopher Oram and Neil Austin, respectively, begin with a warm palate, but as Leontes becomes gripped by jealousy, the feel gets very cold, very quickly; the post-intermission Bohemia sequence, on the other hand, is appropriately sunny and bucolic. Branagh’s longtime musical collaborator Patrick Doyle did the music and songs, and this feels less like incidental music, and more like a full cinematic soundtrack; it’s wonderful, but the pre-show overture went on a little long (the static cinema camera angle, looking down on the audience, did not help).
The staging of the play’s start as a Christmas celebration is wonderful, setting the wintry tone; and opening with the boy Mamillius’s “A sad tale’s best for winter” is a wonderstroke. Leontes’ fall into jealousy is so quick on the page that it’s tricky; Branagh does a great job here in blocking the action so that he is off with others, catching only glimpses of Hadley Frasier’s Polixenes and Miranda Raison’s Hermione, snatches that–out of context–could look like shades of infidelity IF you’re looking for it. Of course, they’re not, but by this point, Leontes is looking for it.
Branagh does wonders with the role of Leontes. His building of his monolith of jealous madness is steady and implacable, until the death of his son and wife, at which point that entire structure crumbles. Juli Dench, too, is great as Paulina, the only person who can stand up to the king. With vocals that run from tone to tone shadings within single line, and a completely killer stare, she is a force to be reckoned with.
The production is tight and coiled through the most famous of all stage directions (“Exit. Pursued by a bear.“), then loose and free after the intermission that follows. That stage direction, by the way, is presented with an extreme close up of a roaring bear projected on the back wall. The second, more pastoral, act is presented full of music and dance (it’s been 30 years since I’ve read the play–not scheduled to read it for the Project until May of 2017–but I don’t remember that much music…and yet it works).
Does it ALL work?
No. But the fault is not with Branagh or anyone else associated with the play…everyone except the playwright.
Shakespeare gives us a second act (for the most part) devoid of Leontes (Branagh) and Pauline (Dench), or any real sense of stakes. He does give us the comic con-artist Autolycus (wonderfully played by John Dagleish in seemingly Into the Woods Big Bad Wolf mode, fitting as the name means “the wolf itself”), but it’s not enough. Even the tantrum-like explosion by Polixenes doesn’t raise the stakes so much make one wonder, “Jeez, both these kings are total tools.” And what can be made of that final act? An arrival, then an off-stage reunion that is reported by characters we don’t really care about, and then a deus ex machina that can only be described as a head-scratcher. Is it a statue come to life? or woman kept in hiding for 16 years? Both can be defended, but both present problems, needless to say. By not being explicit one way or the other, the problem is only exacerbated. Act Five is a mess. And it messes with the play.
A good play can survive, even thrive in spite of, a mediocre start. But a bad ending? As it’s the last thing you hear and the first you remember, it can be devastating. Can there be a good production of this play? I don’t know. All I know is that the ending of Pericles (which I saw a couple of months back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) has a ridiculous deus ex machina ending, too…but that one brought tears, and felt earned, somehow lived. This Winter’s Tale? Not so much. Still for a chance to see Branagh and Dench on stage (albeit on-screen), it’s worth it.