Friday 27 November 2015

The Winter's Tale

Garrick Theatre (Live cinema screening)
26th November 2015

Opening a year-long season at the Garrick theatre, Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale continues the successful trend of live screenings to cinemas worldwide. In an introduction to the screening (and season) Branagh describes the play as a ‘tragic fairytale’, and it is with this interpretation that he succeeds in overcoming the difficulties associated with Shakespeare’s contentiously termed ‘late Romances’, namely the slightly uneven structure and tonal erraticism – the first three acts forming a tight psychological tragedy before shifting to the pastoral romantic comedy of act four.

Taking young Mamillius’ (Pierre Atri) tales of ‘sprites and goblins’ as a starting point, Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford inject a sense of fantastic enchantment suited to the festivities of the opening scene, framing the drama as one of those ‘sad tales best for winter’. The embracing of the fantastical elements of Shakespeare’s play is encouraged by Patrick Doyle’s score, magically conjuring melodious leitmotifs of music-box chimes and foreboding bass lines.

Christopher Oram’s sparing set, along with Jon Driscoll’s projections and Neil Austin’s lighting, combine to particular effectiveness in the closing scenes, transforming Leontes’ (Branagh) Sicilia into a Hans Christian Andersen-esque ice palace. All these factors are brought together in a way which ensures that the final magical twist pays off in a satisfyingly traditional ‘happy-ever-after’ manner. While this may seem to nonchalantly brush aside the more concerning themes of the early acts (jealousy, paranoia, false condemnation, the death of a child) – those becoming a sort of twisted ‘once-upon-a-time’ prologue to the romance of act four – Branagh and Ashford’s direction is assured and the inconsistent tone of the text is muted through the charmed filter of festive wonder.

Amongst the starry ensemble, it is Judi Dench who (rightly so) has drawn the majority of attention and publicity. As the noble voice-of-reason-cum-fairy godmother, Paulina, Dench dominates every moment she is on stage, effortlessly imbuing her dialogue with warmth, humour, scorn and grief in equal measure. Her skilful abilities of affinity and crystallised connection exemplify why she is so cemented as one of the great Shakespearean actors.

In a similar vein, Michael Pennington is sympathetic in his subtle, conversational tone, ensuring the infamous stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ is more than a piece of trivia. Emphasising Antigonus’ sacrifice, Pennington makes the most of a brief role which, in other hands, could be upstaged by the circumstance of the character’s death. Of the younger cast, particularly impressive are Jessie Buckley’s charmingly earthy Perdita (the chemistry between her and Tom Bateman’s Florizel is completely swoon-worthy) and John Dagleish’s sharp comic turn as the roguish Autolycus. Only Branagh’s tendency to occasionally over-emote as the distraught Leontes, and the lapsing of voice projection into - albeit enthusiastic - shouting in Bateman’s case, hampers a production of mostly solid performances.

It is hard not to be charmed by The Winter’s Tale; despite its flaws, Branagh casts a spell which only the hardest of hearts could resist. Yes, some of the darker themes of Shakespeare’s text are sidestepped, but as a festive pick-me-up The Winter’s Tale is a more than decent kick off for the Branagh season. So, with an encore screening on Christmas Eve, put aside those ‘bah humbug!’ thoughts and get swept away by this unashamedly magical romance.

The Winter’s Tale plays at the Garrick Theatre until 16th January 2016, with encore screenings on 24th December and 5th January at selected cinemas.

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