Monday, February 8, 2016

The Winter’s Tale: Branagh and Dench

Judi Dench as Paulina and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes in The Winter's Tale at the Garrick. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Kenneth Branagh’s new theatre company opened its inaugural season at the Garrick in the West End with productions of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade (double-billed with his one-woman piece All on Her Own with Zoë Wanamaker) and The Winter’s Tale. Luckily those of us who didn’t happen to be in the neighborhood were able to see the latter in HD. It stars Branagh himself and the great, unstoppable Judi Dench. They give luminous performances as King Leontes of Sicilia, whose fit of jealousy plunges his kingdom into darkness, and his wife’s gentlewoman Paulina, the only member of the court unafraid to stand up to him when he accuses his Queen Hermione (Miranda Raison) of adultery and treason and proclaims the baby she births in prison the bastard son of his childhood friend Polixenes (Hadley Fraser).

The play is one of the late glories of the Bard’s career, a romance that leaps, at the halfway point, over sixteen years and shifts from tragedy in Sicilia to pastoral comedy in Polixenes’ kingdom, Bohemia. It’s not quite an even divide: in the fifth act Polixenes and his minister Camillo (John Schrapnel) – formerly Leontes’ minister, who helps Polixenes escape his wrath – follows his son Florizel (Tom Bateman) and his shepherdess paramour Perdita (Jessie Buckley) to Sicilia, where they seek sanctuary when Polixenes finds out about the star-crossed love affair. The Winter’s Tale is a tough play to pull off, but over and over again companies have made the Sicilia scenes work and clutched in the Bohemian ones, and this production – which Branagh co-directed with Rob Ashford – is no exception. The Bohemia scenes aren’t terrible, just mediocre: the erotics are forced, the two young actors are inadequate, and the ensemble sheep-shearing festival scenes are built around uninspired unmusical numbers. I would have said that the tone of the Bohemia section is impossible to get right, but as it happens I’ve seen two revivals of the play, in Stratford, England in 1976 (with Ian McKellen as a terrifying Leontes) and in Stratford, Canada in 1978 (directed by Robin Phillips), that worked straight through. Unfortunately at this juncture I can’t give testimony that might illuminate why they worked; because they were the first two Winter’s Tales I’d ever seen and I wasn’t aware that they were succeeding at something that almost everyone else has failed at. As soon as the play returns to Sicilia – and to Branagh and Dench – for act five, the considerable pleasures of the production are restored immediately. The final act, where most of what was lost in the wake of Leontes’ jealous eruption is found again, is as magical and as moving as one might have hoped.

Branagh and Ashford have set the first half around the turn of the twentieth century. Both the staging and Christopher Oram’s set and lighting evoke the forms of narrative of that period: not just fairy tales (the “sad tale . . . best for winter” that Leontes and Hermione’s little boy, Mamillius, is drawn to at bedtime) but also the hold-overs of nineteenth-century theatricals as well as silent pictures (home-movie footage is screened on a sheet at Leontes’ court during a Christmas party). This idea carries some charm, but it hasn’t been worked through dramatically, and – on HD at least – the Victorian stagecraft comes across as a little chintzy rather than nostalgic. The Christmas motif is better. Mamillius and Paulina sit beside a Christmas tree in the first scene, the ensemble arrives singing “Deck the Halls,” and there’s an exchange of gifts: a snow globe from Polixenes to Leontes, and from Hermione to Polixenes, a pair of ice skates so that he might consider staying a little longer into the Sicilian winter.

Tom Bateman as Florizel and Jessie Buckley as Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The play is a fairy tale, so we don’t worry that Leontes’ unfounded suspicion that Hermione and Polixenes are lovers comes out of nowhere. Here we see the innocent physical behavior that he blows up into evidence – Polixenes stands behind her with his arms across her shoulders, he trails his finger along her arm, and when they skate together across the stage their arms are linked. Branagh chooses to understate the “Too hot, too hot” soliloquy, in which Leontes articulates his jealousy – most actors really dig into that speech – so that here we see the king starting out just a little off-balance and becoming more and more unsettled. Polixenes, returned from skating, embraces his friend, and Branagh’s Leontes stiffens, unable to respond and baffled about how to handle this intimacy at the precise moment when he has begun to see Polixenes as an enemy. It’s after this exchange that he veers out of control and appears feverous. Branagh’s trademark as a Shakespearean actor is his way of cutting up the meter, taking odd, unexpected pauses and then rushing to catch up, but (much as I love his Henry V, his Benedick and especially his Hamlet) I don’t think it’s ever been more effective than it is here, where it underscores the scrambling of the character. Branagh has one fantastic moment after another. When Camillo agrees reluctantly to poison Polixenes, Leontes kisses him on the mouth, and you feel that poor Camillo has entered into an odious devil’s bargain. In the next scene Hermione is sitting with Mamillius on his bed and Leontes, who has just learned that Polixenes has escaped with Camillo, scoops the young prince up into his arms, as if rescuing him from contamination. His obsession with Hermione’s alleged betrayal keeps the king awake at night, and Branagh’s way of chopping up the lines makes him sound dangerously exhausted: he’s clearly coming apart and can’t get the pieces to fit back together. When Paulina brings him the new-born child in the hope that this flesh-and-blood offspring, whose face contains unmistakable signs of his father, will snap the king out of his fancy, he calls it a brat and a bastard and threatens to kill it. But Branagh does something interesting: he cradles the baby, drawn to it despite himself, and when Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Michael Pennington) lifts it out of his arms, Branagh falls to the ground, as if Leontes felt he’d been weakened by an evil spell somehow wielded by this infant.

If Branagh is marvelous, Dench is transcendent. She does phenomenal things with Paulina’s unassailable good sense, and her age enhances her force as she counsels Leontes like a sage, tossing off his objections as ridiculous follies. When she announces Hermione’s death after he’s dismissed as lies the oracle that claimed her innocence, Dench breaks down affectingly in the middle of the line, and then, when he’s stricken with remorse, she has a lovely moment, apologizing for the harshness of her words (she’s called him a tyrant) and helping the grieving, defeated king offstage. Dench reads Paulina’s lines, in the first half and especially in the final scene – where she plays the role of a kind of white witch, restoring Hermione to him – in her incomparable silvery, silken contralto. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but when you watch Dench’s performance you can’t help thinking that likely no one in the history of The Winter’s Tale has brought more color and music to these lines.

Miranda Raison is very affecting as Hermione. When Leontes first accuses her and she replies, “How this will grieve you, / When you shall come to clearer knowledge,” she crosses the stage and touches his head, and you see that even now, as he’s blackening her name, her concern for him is foremost in her mind. When he repeats these calumnies in the trial scene, she looks at him in distressed wonder, as if he were speaking in tongues. Pennington contributes a sweet, lyrical portrayal of Antigonus, tasked by Leontes with leaving the baby in the wild and then eaten by a bear just before the play switches tones. That’s the source of the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by bear.” The bear in this version is a projection that links up visually with the home movie at the beginning, and Antigonus wanders off into fog. The child, of course, grows up into Perdita, raised by Bohemian shepherds who find her as a baby: Jimmy Yull as the Shepherd and Jack Colgrave Hirst as his son, the Clown, offer a touch of the music hall; they’re the bright spots in the Bohemia section. Naturally, though, the production showcases Branagh and Dench’s performances, and they justify the anticipation Shakespeare lovers have felt since the casting was announced last year.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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