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.

Operatic camp and “The Magic Flute”

Grossly under-publicized, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Fry’s film adaptation of the Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, was released in US theatres this week. It was originally released in France and the UK back in 2006 at the same time Branagh’s As You Like It was hitting the American market. Considering that Branagh has moved away from Shakespeare productions in the last half-dozen years to take on projects like Valkyrie and the PBS hit Wallander, it makes sense to reintroduce him to the independent marketplace at this point to compete with the buzz of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

In an unnamed country that looks suspiciously like France during WWI, a soldier named Tamino is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the clutches of the supposedly evil Sarastro. But all is not as it seems. Under the musical direction of James Conlon, the film is formally operatic, with the dialogue and libretto by our Wilde-reincarnate, Stephen Fry. Avoiding the sound editing disaster that was Branagh’s Loves Labours Lost, as director he cast entirely outside his usual stable of actors for operatically trained voices rather than A-listers. With the full Mozart orchestrations and these rich voices, Branagh and Fry are able to use both plotting and music to facilitate dramatic argument—striking the balance that opera tends to loose when transcribed to the screen.

I find it interesting that after the relatively major aesthetic and financial successes that were Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet, he has turned to ebullient love in Much Ado About Nothing, Loves Labours Lost, As You Like It, and now The Magic Flute. Where in the former teleplays Shakespeare’s verse is meant to convey the amorous emotional intensities, Flute reinforces the scale of emotion not only in linguistic conveyances–singing, I mean–but also through expansive camera work imitating the stage scale of contemporary opera and their production values. (Aida is traditionally staged, rather famously, with several elephants in its opening sequence.) In the film, the church were Sarastro is tending the innocently wounded seems larger than Westminster Abbey, with great halls and winding turrets that only turn corners and see no end. The pastoral trenches (conspicuously clean and green as compared to the muddy realism that brought critical acclaim to Henry V) also snake unendingly from both bird’s eye view and worm’s eye view cinematography choices. But it is the scale of the graveyard that seems the most expansive and most rhetorically pointed in its scale. After an aria of mourning by Sarastro, the dolly zooms outward to reveal unending whitewashed gravemarkers. Sarastro and his survivors shrink to nothing in comparison, but not before we notice that the memorials are inscribed with names in languages from across the globe, including Engllish, Sanskrit, and Japanese.

Stephen Fry and Kenneth Branagh team up to adapt Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The frame narrative strategy has become an increasingly contentious directorial choice of late. Both Alan Cummings’ recent stage version of Macbeth and Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby use insane asylums to spotlight a suspicious narrator. For a close listener, I feel that kind of suspicion need not be foregrounded by additions. This is not a claim for “literary purity” as it were, but rather my discomfort comes from what this presumes about audiences and the rhetorical properties of film. In the first, it assumes that after paying roughly $15 to see a film, the audience isn’t really paying attention or smart enough to notice inconsistencies. In the second case, it provides a limited (if perhaps only one available) reading of the film, and one that cuts its legs out from under the whole enterprise: if our narrator is (always) aberrant, crazy, not in touch with reality, what was the journey for? It privileges an individual, hyper-subjective experience rather than the relational dynamics early modern drama privileges in its dialogue. The popular asylum frame can be done effectively, as in the second season of American Horror Story, what I would call one of the smarter series on network television.

Flute is a bizarre enough piece—it is Mozart after all—that a frame narrative seems necessary not only for the distance in historical time since its composition in 1790s Vienna, but also for the operatic form. The screening I attended at our local Ar Theatre here in central Illinois pushed back its screen time by a half hour, so I chatted with some elderly fellow attendees also waiting outside. All were in there 60s at the least. One gentleman and his wife were excited for the screening as they regularly drive to Chicago for the Lyric Opera season. He was surprised that I was there: “Young people don’t go to opera,” he said, “opera audiences are dying.” Although I am not certain of what to make of the WWI pitch, which included the symbolic Christmas football match between the troops. Each side ends up being led by a mother (the Queen of the Night) and father (Sarastro) over their daughter, Pamina. The result is that as the parents are grafted upon the competing regions of Europe at war with one another, she becomes analogically symbolic them of peace through a unified European continent. Once she is free to marry her love, a soldier names Tamino who through the course of the film fights for both sides, the landscape is healed, recovered with growth echoing Disney’s version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” vignette in Fantasia 2000. As the UN struggles in the wake of financial collapses and political coups, the film does seem especially exigent for its initial UK and French audiences.

What seems to characterize the film is the overlap between a kind of tonal camp indicate of comedic voices of Branagh, Fry, and Mozart. Dry and ridiculous, they include a a bitter bite of topicality. The UN overtones of love and union promoting national rebirth makes it difficult to dismiss Papageno’s flying daydreams of bird women and giant lips. The black-and-write dream meeting of Tamino and Pamina nicely nods to the version of Flute that featured Fred Astaire, but jarred with the over-saturated lush battlefields of France. No other interior images used this palate, although their was much voice over as a means of psychologizing the lover’s drama. Its the deliberate exaggeration of interiority that brought so much criticism to Branagh’s Hamlet, investing again in the individual experience while opera exaggerates embodied emotions. A clever project, it too late in the game completely commits to its Technicolor theatricality and exaggerated qualities. I’m glad to see Branagh increasingly committing more consistently to the whimsy, and I hope rather than continuing in the vein of grit like Wallander, he takes up surrealist filmmaking as a next endeavour.


  • This film is getting an additional showing at Urbana-Champaign’s Art Theatre Coop next Wednesday, July 3rd, at 2:00pm. For more information, click here.
  • According to their Facebook page, the Art Theatre is also working on bringing Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in the near future. It is currently only screening in a handful of Chicagoland theatres despite the wide release.
  • Interested in supporting the coop? Become a member! (I am.) A share in the company costs a mere $65. For more information on the rights and privileges that come with that purchase, check them out here.