Sucrose Season: The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s “The Winter’s Tale”

The chief component of Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is sweetness. Now playing simultaneously at the renovated Garrick Theatre in London and in cinema worldwide, the production and new troupe, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, are capitalizing upon the holiday season, the growing revenue available from streaming theatre (e.g., Shakespeare’s Globe in London, The Met Live, National Theatre Live), and as a directing duo. While sumptuous and deftly executed in terms of textual and actorly precision, this production, like Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) from the last Christmas season, has no eros, none of bitter bite we see in his Othello (1995), his interpretation of Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), not to mention his most stirring work as the soul-searching Swedish detective at the heart of the TV series Wallander (2008-15) to temper the cloying didacticism which is the trap hidden in this play.

Boyhood friends Leontes (Kenneth Branagh) and Polixenes (Hadley Fraser) exchange Christmas gifts.

Part of me wants to think that Branagh revels in the tonally saccharine. There was so much para-theatre to the film screening. The film starts with at least ten minutes of panning and dolly shots of the newly renovated Garrick, with Branagh voicing over about the high-definition, 3-D and IMAX retrofitting. The theatre is beautiful, but the camera lingers on signs for stall numbers, passes over the bar, and pauses on cherubic ornamentation. It is an odd glorification of the nineteenth-century proscenium playhouse, at once glorifying the grandiose act of merely attending a play in such a setting (with no resemblances to the conditions in which The Winter’s Tale was itself designed) and activating a touristic ethos. More bizarre still is the narrative. It opens as one might expect, describing the new troupe, it’s mission, upcoming productions, and logic of the season—although a combination of old and new great work seems hardly a cogent organizing principle. Branagh goes on to describe the “Classical” or naturalistic style he argues he has tried to develop over a career of performing Shakespeare. No doubt this is the hallmark of what made his Henry V (1989) so thoughtful and innovative, but how naive or how egotistical are we to believe Branagh is to assume these qualities are in him and him alone?

From the opening moments of the play one would assume the love between Hermione (Miranda Raison) and Leontes (Kenneth Branagh) to be unmovable.

Aside from the pomp and frippery, the production is after the right question I think: Can one every really be forgiven for certain trespasses, and in particular, for the haste of jealousy? I appreciated the fact that the production did not attempt to link Leontes’ jealousy and seeming madness with a contemporary psychology. While the rationale for his haste with which he assumes his wife and best friend to be cheating on him together is not explained, that abstraction is tonally consistent with the broader lack of cultural specificity of the play: there are kings, kingdom, commoners, friends, fathers, daughters, wives, sons. The cuts to the dialogue do put pressure on the haste of Leontes’ decisions and his inability to govern his own emotions, suggesting that not only is he a poor husband but a poor monarch, erring on the side of tyranny rather than a benevolent monarchy. For me, the production successfully collapses the question of what exactly Leontes’ needs forgiveness for in terms of self-governance that affects both his family and kingdom. Paulina (Judi Dench) than takes on a the role of counsel and chastisement. That it is the fulfillment of a prophecy and not Leontes’ ministrations that demarcates the appropriate time for reunion interrupts any interpretation from positing a metric for forgiveness. But perhaps that is the point.

The love between Florizel (Tom Bateman) and Perdita (Jessie Buckley) is celebrated and supported by the shepherding community.

In making clear the essential problem the play posits is certainly one of the triumphs of the production. Yet, the play itself is far more famous for the two miraculous spectacles the conclude each half: the bear and the statue. It is a pet theory of mine that is the bear is staged as a man in costume, the production is more comic than tragic, and if my an actual bear, the inverse is true. Whether unable to decide how to approach the infamous stage direction or for some other reason, this production misses a key opportunity to be truly innovative. There is no “pursuing”; flashes of either a black-and-white image of a bear or a polar bear appear on the scrim behind Antigonus (Michael Pennington) as he runs out. Likewise, while beautiful, the statue version of long-suffering Hermione (Miranda Raison) is barely transformed by make-up or costume. Most unfortunate about this choice is that it doesn’t do anything with the space carved out by Raison and Jessie Buckely (as Perdita) as interesting and rich female identities. Both staging choices remove the visual trick of it and decide instead to rely on the credit accrued toward audiences’ willing suspension of disbelief, refusing to let the bitter to peak through the seams and give us the “Classical” theatre Branagh promised all along.

  • For ticket information at the Garrick and in cinemas, click here.