Tag Archives: Rob Ashford

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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The Entertainer – Garrick Theatre

The Entertainer - Kenneth Branagh

2016’s spring and summer theatre seasons have been dominated by some outstanding leading female performances; from Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl to Billy Piper’s Yerma and Helen McCrory’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea (which gets an NT Live cinema showing this week) this is some of the best work we’ve seen in London for some time. But autumn is almost here and it’s time for our leading men to step into the spotlight. Over the next few weeks a number of highly anticipated shows will open – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring their No Man’s Land tour to the Wyndhams, while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith take on The Dresser at the Duke of York’s.

But before any of them Kenneth Branagh gives his take on John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the final play in his year-long Garrick season, which has its press night tomorrow. Set in 1956, it’s the tale of middle-aged Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice, who continues to tread the boards in a comedy end-of-the-pier show in a northern seaside town. He lives with his second wife Phoebe, their two sons and his father the renowned, and now retired, Music Hall star Billy Rice. One weekend Archie’s daughter Jean, from his first marriage, comes to visit from London and the precarious balance of illusion and deliberate ignorance that has sustained the family is shattered.

Osborne’s plays are often hard to really love and even 60 years on the brutal nature of his characters can be uncomfortable to watch. But while there’s plenty of West End theatre that will harmlessly entertain you, very little sends you out into the night troubled by what you have seen, this production of The Entertainer does just that and it’s a very good thing.

At the time Osborne wrote this play Britain was undergoing a period of considerable change as old and new values began to clash across the political and social spectrum. Rationing had only recently ended and the old Britain of Empire and showmen like Archie was essentially bankrupt. Much has been made in the pre-press about its echoes in current issues, and watching the show now its relevance to our own times, with Brexit and Scottish independence once again pitting old against new, is stark. The Union flag is a frequent motif as it was in the Music Hall, either waved in Archie’s act, representing the armed forces or projected across the back of the stage… and how complicated our own relationship with that symbol of Britain now is – it doesn’t mean quite the same thing it did two months ago. Who we are as a nation and how much we value tradition over progress are questions as important to us now as they were to Osborne in the 1950s. And what this version of The Entertainer is doing is seeing that play-out in microcosm in one family deeply affected by a future they can’t control – seem familiar?

Once again I heard another audience member call this ‘obviously dated’ which, as with the recent discussion about Present Laughter, is a misunderstanding. The Entertainer is set in the time it was written and where it feels stale is a deliberate move by Branagh and director Rob Ashford to show that Archie is a man out of his time. In fact his refined working class family worry about the future but live almost entirely in the past, recounting old stories and existing within the confines of Archie’s long out-of-date act. And, alongside the political references, like Present Laughter, it has much to say about the expiration of celebrity, how quickly it disappears and, for those like Archie, even now, clinging to a desperate C-List status is better than none at all.

Christopher Oram’s has done some excellent design work during this season but The Entertainer is one of his best, setting it in a shabby and faded Music Hall with a giant curtain dominating the back of the stage where Archie often appears with dancers to perform his routine. Brilliantly, the Rice household exists in a combined ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage’ set-up which allows Ashford to fluidly move between the home and stage scenes, with dancers neatly moving furniture into place. It makes perfect sense for them to ‘live’ in the Music Hall which has economically sustained them and shaped their lives, nicely exploited with occasional freeze-frame moments as Archie delivers his gags around them, tying the two sides of his life together.

You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot in the coming days about Olivier’s take on the central role and how Branagh compares, but undoubtedly he has made this part his own, incorporating everything he’s learned from his roles during the season to create a sad wreck of a man. His Archie is someone able to fool himself he once had everything and finding it increasingly difficult to hide the truth, an element of his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. In many ways Archie is a version of Arthur Gosport in Harlequinade, a second-rate actor committed to the theatre, but Branagh’s Archie is only too aware of his failings, while the wonderful comic timing and joy he used to great effect in The Painkiller he warps slightly here as Archie’s show-time pieces are deliberately just out of sync or mistimed by a second to expose him.

Archie is performing almost always, especially in front of his father where jokes and stories are relayed in the same patter he uses on stage but there are wonderful moments when Branagh subtly allows something to catch in his throat, to suppress an emotion he refuses to feel, and in Act Two when Archie unleashed a tirade about being ‘dead behind the eyes’ and talks of not feeling anything, knowing the people watching him don’t feel anything either, it’s an incredibly exposing and affecting moment which certainly makes this audience feel for him. While Branagh has hinted at this before, from that point you see Archie’s struggle, how the affairs, drinking and dodgy deals are all part of the way he fools himself rather than admit he’s never been the man he wants to be and indicate the extent of his self-loathing. It’s an aching and profoundly moving performance.

Gawn Grainger replaced John Hurt at fairly short notice in the role of Bill Rice and its one that grows on him as the play progresses. He is a key force in the play and while a lot of time is spent waiting for and relying on Archie, it is Billy that the household actually moves around. He represents a very old guard – racist, faded and accepting his time is done but still an aspiration for his son. Grainger has the cantankerous side of Billy but needs to draw out the pathos as the run progresses.

Greta Scacchi has that balance just right as Archie’s feeble and highly-strung wife. She’s a permanently anxious presence, well aware that her dallying husband no longer really loves her but like him chooses to hide from the truth, but in gin – and if you attempt a dangerous drink along with the characters then you could be in a pretty sorry state. Always on the verge of tears and regretting a wasted life, Scacchi is a perfect piece of casting. Less so is Sophie McShera who brings very little to the crucial role of Jean. Her initial scenes are quite flat and then everything else becomes a little shrill and surprisingly lifeless.  She lacks the youthful fire that this character heralds and the important contrast of big city life, change and the future that she represents. Again she’s meant to be a character out of time, but looking forward unlike her family and there has to be real angst as Jean debates a life of old or new.

So, ‘our revels now are ended’ and Branagh’s fascinating theatre season draws to a close with this bittersweet and thoughtful version of The Entertainer. It’s hard to know what effect this play will have, Osborne is still divisive, but this season has championed lesser-known and more troubling works, so to end with this elegiac comment on the nature of celebrity seems fitting, and it’s clear how much love has gone into it. In an autumn packed with big male performances, Branagh’s take on Archie Rice cuts deep and as a man who shies away from his own inadequacy it is acutely sad. It’s not for everyone and may be a challenge to attract younger viewers, but the disquieting effect this play has, long after the curtain call, is a rare and valuable thing

The Entertainer is at The Garrick Theatre until 12 November, and there will be a live cinema broadcast on 27 October. Tickets start at £17. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Romeo and Juliet – Garrick Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - Branagh Theatre

Perfectly timed to open at the tail-end of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, the penultimate production in Kenneth Branagh’s year of theatre is Romeo and Juliet – probably the greatest tragic romance of all time and arguable the most well-known of his plays. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in your life, chances are you’ll know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, potentially a couple of quotes and the fact it has a balcony scene (which was never actually specified in the text). As much as scholars and theatre-lovers may argue that Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III or any other has had a greater impact on the nature of theatre and on the acting profession, Romeo and Juliet has become an intrinsic and recognisable part of the pop culture landscape

Appropriate then, that Branagh’s two leads are most famous for their TV roles – Richard Madden as Game of Thrones Robb Stark and Lily James as Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose – bringing with them a sizeable young fan base that will have some familiarity with at least the story of this play. Yet it is a very difficult play to do well, largely because our tolerance for highly romantic language and the arduous innocence of the young lovers is, these days, tinged with considerable cynicism. As world-weary adults we condemn their teenage crush and feel sure that had they lived they probably would’ve been sick of each other within 6 months. So, the modern audience poses a considerable problem for a director who has to navigate the original language with shifting attitudes to this lovelorn tale.

Many of the critics assumed that Branagh’s stumbling block would be the comedies, most especially The Painkiller which instead proved a triumphant hit, not least with audiences who loved it. Of all the plays in the season, however, it was Romeo and Juliet that I had most doubts about for the reasons above and the relatively untested power of the leads. Yet, Branagh has again proven his mettle as a director by creating an imaginative and compelling piece of theatre that somehow perfectly navigates the pitfalls of this play.

Set in sleek 1950s Italy, it opens in the middle of a stone piazza, with café tables and idle young men in shirt sleeves enjoying the heat. Immediately you think of West Side Story (itself a version of this play) and we get a sense of a world in which the young feel oppressed by the authority of the old, desperate to fight each other but not daring to. It bristles with masculine energy as the warring Montagues and Capulets circle each other trading insults. The palette is entirely black, white and grey, implying a realm of respectability and power invested in ageing men, but one that offers glamorous women and fancy parties. And Branagh, with co-director and choreographer Rob Ashford, have introduced a number of innovations including a nice dance piece at the Capulet’s ball and having three sung speeches, including Juliet taking to the microphone at the party and spotting Romeo for the first time. It’s subtly done but adds a nice touch of variety and modernity to the delivery.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how funny it is in the first half, and clearly drawing on his recent productions, Branagh has repurposed some of the more sentimental speechifying and given it a comedy edge, not least in the (in)famous balcony scene. Usually this is played as an earnest confession of love, but here the 14 year old Juliet is drunk from the party and Romeo is still playing the charming lothario, and only towards the end of the scene do they both begin to express sincere emotion for one another. It’s done with restraint so the comedy is never overt and brings fresh interpretation to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes which will appeal to more current attitudes. Instead of laughing at the high-language we’re being shown the humour in the gaucheness and embarrassment of the characters as they try to express their feelings for each other. It works.

The second half is quite a different beast and here the full danger of inter-family rivalry and the tangled plot in which the lovers find themselves is realised. The atmosphere is permanently charged with emotion – be it grief, anger or love – and the more leisurely pace quickly increases as things converge. It is a marked change of tone which finally allows the actors to intensify their performances and love no longer has a comedic role, instead it is now driving events and becomes completely compelling.

Richard Madden and Lily James have real chemistry as the ‘star-crossed’ pair, and their desire for one another is entirely believable throughout. They nicely navigate their way from love at first sight, through their first nervous exchanges to a physical passion for one another that ultimately consumes them. Madden’s Romeo is initially harder to get to grips with as he rushes some lines and seems to be charming Juliet without entirely devoting himself, but it’s soon clear that this almost rehearsed smoothness is intentional, and it is only mid-way through the balcony scene that you see him realise she is more than another conquest to him and that he begins to feel deeply. Madden grows in the role as events play out and later he equates the violence of Romeo’s love with the more brutal side of his manliness which results in a number of deaths – so as his feelings for Juliet become more firmly established so to do his violent tendencies. Much later in the play as he discovers Juliet’s fate, Madden is excellent at conveying his devastation, making his final scenes quite moving and he will find greater depths of emotion as he gets more performances under his belt.

Lily James is also a great Juliet, capturing the girlish innocence of the 14 year old – an interesting decision to retain that element of the play – experiencing her first feelings of love, lust and rebellion. Of the two it’s the harder role to convince in because Juliet is all emotion so in the wrong hands can seem unvarying and mawkish. Unlike Romeo she has no other developed subplots and speaks almost entirely of love and marriage throughout the play (whether about Romeo or Paris), so in James’s performance it’s fascinating to see greater variety particularly adding texture to the changing relationship with her parents and a steeliness in her final act. And although the balcony scene emphasises the comedy it’s clear throughout that James has a feel for the verse which make Juliet’s declarations of love entirely convincing and heartfelt.

There has been much conjecture about Derek Jacobi’s casting as much older Mercutio than usual but in the context of this production it seems to work well, evidence of another Branagh / Ashford innovation in the way the text has been interpreted. Jacobi gives us a rather camp and effeminate Mercutio, who loves parties and makes a grand first entrance with a silky sway to the music at the Capulet’s ball. We see him then as a peacemaker, far removed from the family turf war and a bit of an old roué. And while it does make his final scene with Tybalt a little ridiculous – how on earth he thought he was going to beat a 20-something in a sword fight – it makes him the first innocent destroyed by the feud. Jacobi is part of the comic charm of the first act that makes his demise all the more shocking and a clear catalyst for the more serious business to come.

There’s a good supporting cast including Myra Syal extracting as much comedy as she can from the role of the Nurse, while Michael Rouse has a standout scene as Lord Capulet tearing into his undutiful daughter and emphasising the dangerous power of these senior men that can easily erupt into violence when crossed. A shame then that the war between the two families feels a little anaemic – and having Mercutio in a comedy role does take away from Romeo’s gang of young thugs –  so you don’t get that feeling of danger all the time or that peace is teetering on a knife’s edge. We see that potential in Rouse’s explosive scene but a little more of that early on would help to heighten the tension and make it clear what’s at stake.

Credit also to James, Syal and Marisa Berenson (playing Lady Capulet) for not allowing an audience member’s inexplicable screaming fit to derail their final scene. She was escorted out in less than 15 seconds and the actors resumed unphased. Overall then, Romeo and Juliet is a fine addition to the Branagh series and should garner positive reviews in a couple of days (the disadvantage of buying tickets a year ahead is never knowing when press night will be). It feels contemporary, has taken innovative approaches to some of the tricky aspects of performing this romantic tragedy and delivers a range of interesting performances, not least from its two star leads who will find more meaning as the run extends. And if the tragic ending (beautifully played incidentally) is not sad enough, this is the last Shakespeare of the inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and it means we only have one production left. With four wonderful shows under its belt, hopes are high for The Entertainer in August.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. Tickets start at £15 for the daily front-row lottery and the show will be broadcast to cinemas on 7 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Harlequinade / All On Her Own – Garrick Theatre

by Johan PerssonAn earlier version was first published on The Reviews Hub Website.

It’s been eight years since Kenneth Branagh was last in the West End so the decision to form a theatre company and take up a prolonged residency at the Garrick has caused a great deal of excitement. Having been away too long, Branagh is clearly intending to make up for his absence with 5 plays in 10 months – an ambitious plan but one that evokes a more traditional age of theatre. It opens with his superb and near-perfect interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale shown alongside the lesser known Rattigan farce Harlequinade performed in rep until January.

But the evening begins with a late addition to the programme, an unrelated Rattigan monologue All On Her Own performed by Zoe Wannamaker. It’s a useful two-for-one deal for an audience and ensures the evening reaches ninety minutes with the two together. Rosemary Hodge sees the last of her party guests off and begins a conversation with her dead husband. As the drinks flow, Rosemary feels his presence in the room and begins to imitate his voice in order to understand the cause of his death. Through this one-sided conversation she explores the tone of their marriage, hinting at not showing enough appreciation for him when he was alive. We also see that they were quite different people, Rosemary a prim, middle class woman in a well-appointed home, and her husband a builder with seemingly down-to-earth opinions – like chalk and cheese – but she clearly retains a deep affection for him. It’s a thoughtful and touching performance from Wannamaker who uses the comedic moments well for balance as she imitates her husband’s northern voice, exploring the pain of separation from someone she didn’t realise she loved. In this affecting short monologue Wannamaker takes us through a huge range of emotional responses as her anger and fear overtake her, leaving us questioning how much of this is grief and how much guilt.

Linking the two pieces is a short film about CEMA a post-war policy to bring theatre and music beyond London which is referenced in Harlequinade having provided the funding for the theatre troop in this story to visit a northern town. As the curtain rises on the main event we see a garish looking set complete with wobbly scenery – the location is the dress rehearsal of a hammy production of Romeo and Juliet starring Arthur Gosport (Branagh) and Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) the famous theatrical couple in the midst of the balcony scene. Soon they are gently bickering over their cues and interpretation, as well struggling to manage the mini-dramas within the company. But in the wings is a girl who claims to be Gosport’s daughter that threatens to derail the production and brings startling news that could affect Arthur and Edna’s long-established marriage.

Rattigan’s rarely performed and delightful farce may well be given a new lease of life by Branagh’s lightly charming production. What prevents this from becoming as garish as its scenery is the restraint with which Ashford and Branagh direct, as well as the carefully judged layers of performance which ensure there is a noticeable difference between the consciously exaggerated acting of Arthur and Edna in character as Romeo and Juliet, and the often oblivious people they are when the lights go up. It’s quite close to the bone on several occasions with its hilarious depiction of ‘luvvies’ so immersed in the theatre that real-life becomes a haze and much of the humour derives from the way in which trivial events like Arthur deciding whether to jump on a bench in the balcony scene assume cataclysmic importance while the real-life possibility of bigamy barely registers with him. It is utter nonsense, completely daft and laugh-out-loud funny, but by subtly emphasising the somewhat human side to these people it keeps the audience with them, rather than appearing as grotesques. And it’s comforting to know that some of the silliness Rattigan noticed in the theatre in the 1940s still resonates today – maybe not so much has changed after all.

Branagh displays an unexpected but delightful gift for comedy as Arthur Gosport, both deliciously hammy as Romeo and humorously self-involved as himself. There are a lot of in-jokes but Gosport’s entire submersion in the theatre and obsession with ageing create some of this production’s finest moments including his complete inability to understand the real world. On finding a baby in the wings his only concern is that it may ruin someone’s exit. Branagh even manages to make a wig joke funny in what is a wonderfully vacant performance – as Gosport’s stage manager says “you can’t scatter a void”.

Tom Bateman is excellent as Jack Wakefield, the exasperated stage manager who seems to be the voice of sanity amidst the actorly chaos, as he manages their production and their lives, at the expense of his own – although Bateman cleverly lets us see that for all Wakefield’s frustration, he’s as wedded to the theatre as any of them. Miranda Raison as the squeaky Edna is delightfully fey when it suits her but also incredibly sharp when her marriage or more importantly her part is threatened which is fun to watch, and Hadley Fraser as First Halberdier deserves a mention merely for delivering a line about London critics never noticing him. The whole piece builds to a nice farcical pace which sits well alongside its rep partner as well as providing some much welcome cheer in the West End.

Harlequinade is a great companion piece to The Winter’s Tale, as well as an advert for the forthcoming version of Romeo and Juliet next year, and a chance to see a rare Rattigan. It may lack the wit and sparkle of the finest Noel Coward comedies but this production has bags of charm. And what a delight it is to see Branagh back in the West End after so long. As an influential force in modern theatre the formation of Branagh’s Company is setting a high standard with its inaugural season. Welcome back Ken, we’ve missed you.

Harlequinade / All On Her Own are at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January. Tickets have largely sold out but check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

trh


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

trh


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