Tag Archives: Judi Dench

Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

branagh-theatre

In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.

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Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Winter’s Tale – Garrick Theatre

The Winter's Tale by Johan Persson

First published on The Reviews Hub Website.

The nights are drawing in, there’s a chill in the air and thoughts are already turning to Christmas. In theatre-terms this can only mean one thing, it’s time to shuffle our Shakespeare plays by packing away the flighty summer plots of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing and turn to something considerably darker. Instead out comes Macbeth (we’ve already had an astonishing film and a new Young Vic interpretation opens soon), Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale– the first of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company productions to hit the West End stage (followed by Harlequinade / All On Her Own in rep which I’ll post next week).

This is probably one of Shakespeare’s most bonkers stories whose merits cause considerable disagreement among scholars and critics. The Winter’s Tale is the story of King Leontes who in the midst of happy celebration accuses his wife Hermione of betrayal with his long term neighbour and friend King Polixenes and suggests that the baby she is carrying is his. Leontes has her arrested and Polixenes is chased from the Kingdom after his friend demands his assassination. Born in jail, the child Perdita is denied by Leontes and abandoned in the wildnerness, left to the Gods to decide if she is legitimate while untold miseries are heaped on her father. 15 years later bereft all he once held dear will the now teenage Perdita be found and can an astonishing piece of magic ensure Leontes is forgiven?

Kenneth Branagh’s enchanting production is bursting with Christmas magic from the moment the sounds of a music box fill the auditorium as the curtain rises. Christopher Oram’s stunning design is a marvel, merging Dickensian costume with the Imperial majesty of the nineteenth-century Russian court sumptuously realised in a palette of deep red and white. But the beautiful surface sits perfectly at odds with the poison at the heart of the Court. The first two Acts which form the first half of this production are as perfect as theatre can be, riven with tension and almost suffocatingly emotional as Leonte’s Othello-like possessiveness consumes him. Branagh and Ashford direct with incredible pace that overlaps scenes to give a sense of the speed at which events escalate and this whole first half is utterly gripping.

The second half opens with Time’s monologue lit through a twinkling screen that is a memorable stage picture, as is the final Act opening with Leontes facing away from the audience, utterly still in the middle of his now glittering white palace as snow gently falls upon him. Oram’s once luscious court now cold and desolate reflects Leontes’s frozen heart and endless grief. If there is one duff note it’s the idyllic pastoral scene that comes between these two sections that seems like another play entirely. Mostly this is Shakespeare’s fault, as if he wrote a tragedy and was told to lighten it up a bit for Christmas and so inserted what looks like a hoe-down in the middle. Although performed well, this production, neither in style or design, can quite reconcile its enormous change of tone from the brilliance of what came before.

The Winter’s Tale is of course famous for a stage direction about a bear chase and this is brilliantly achieved with a flash of projection on a momentarily suspended curtain before being whipped away. Although the confines of the text prevent this as after the interval 15 years have passed, it seemed a shame not to take the interval on this shocking note. Greg Doran’s Hamlet in 2008 defied convention by stopping in the middle of a line, so it would have been fascinating to play with expectations here too. It means the subsequent comedy scene with the country folk falls a little flat after the breath-taking tension of the court. But these are minor quibbles.

As you would expect, the performances are largely outstanding and for many the chance to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench on stage together is irresistible and it is a privilege to see them together. Branagh is superb as the tormented Leontes showing us how his initial suspicions grow into certainty, anger, rage and then tyranny. During the scene with Camillo (John Shrapnel) during which he raves about his discovery, Branagh is so unhinged and dangerous it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, but he is also incredibly moving as grief overwhelms him in the later scenes, particularly in the final section. It’s a brilliant performance.

Branagh is absolutely matched by Judi Dench as Paulina, ardent supporter of the Queen’s innocence and Dench makes her at once maternal, fiercely protective and outspoken, unafraid of the monarch who has betrayed Hermione. Her grief is also deeply felt and it’s impossible not to be moved by her delivery of tragic news. The supporting Court performances are also superb, including John Shrapnel as a commanding Camillo and Michael Pennington as Antigonus whose loyalty and devotion to their monarch is well played. Miranda Raison brings a valuable statuesque quality to Hermione who never cries but shows considerable dignity and possession throughout her ordeal. All the performances in the pastoral section are also good and play to the crowd but somehow still that whole section is less engaging.

The Winter’s Tale is London’s perfect theatrical Christmas present, uniting a magical story with wonderful performances, beautiful design and a chance to see two of our finest actors. The whole thing is beautifully realised and for those looking for a festive story that has a little more gravity than a panto then this is certainly for you. It is largely sold out but a cinema broadcast is scheduled for 26 November. It may be cold and damp right now but this production will send you out onto the London streets with a warm glow in your heart.

The Winter’s Tale is at the Garrick Theatre until 16 January. Most of the tickets are sold out but do check for returns, and there’ll be a Cinema Live broadcast on 26 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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