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.

“Be Stone No More”: Collaborative innovations in Theatre History

Hide death upon her face.

There are few forums in which the discourses of theatre history and theatre praxis meet, and fewer still where they mutually inform. On a cool Friday evening, the departments of Theatre and English at the University of Illinois collaborated on an enraging performance art piece that put criticism and performance in direct conversation. The event Be Stone No More was equal parts contextualizing talk, comparative performance, and group discussion. Dr. Andrea Stevens began with a brief talk covering the state of the Renaissance repertory stage in 1611. This was followed by a performance of a scene from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale blended with a scene from Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the combination of which—orchestrated by Sara Boland-Taylor—aimed to test the performed female body. The Q&A component was then not situated as a space for intellectual overflow, but a formal component in which the audience as a group conducted a kind of group analysis of the repertorial comparison. Unlike anything I have seen, the evening gave context, primary evidence, and analysis equal time and weight and wherein emphasis was distributed between director, critic, and performer.

Repertory studies is increasingly a powerful methodology for organizing early modern drama and exposing the analytical capacities for its performance. It has often been confused with repertoire: the collection of strategies and skills an actor collects, perfects, and deploys over a lifetime. Repertory is a two fold concept: a) a system of performance in which a playing company rotated a series of plays on the boards, putting a different play up every day, and b) the collection of plays a company purchased, revised, and/or commissioned, curated into a set by a company (with varying degrees of intention) that exposes possible immanent readings. This performance piece provided a snapshot of what repertory is capable. By staging comparable scenes of still and silent females—one a statue, the other a painted corpse—the performance was an act of both recovery and myth-busting. Putting Shakespeare on equal footing with Middleton reveals and begins to recuperate the merit-worthy drama as yet under-examined, undermining the supposed pre-eminence of “the Bard.” So while we could never recreate original conditions of early modern performance, the evening seems to argue that we can in fact apply original practices as we know them in order to summon up thematic and ideological approximations.

Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale by Johan Zoffany, ca. 1780.

Staging a slice of the 1611 repertory in an open forum like this presents the critic with the challenge of taking a leap into imaginative speculation. It is a leap that the current positivist discourse of theatre history shuns despite valorizing the rigor repertorial comparisons provide. In this case, where co-directors Sara Boland-Taylor and Stevens wanted to explore the fetishizing of the female as art object on the early modern stage, it seemed a necessary and productive move away from the entrenchment of the historical record. The most immediate realization in observing these blended scenes was the presence of a still, silent body. While in the seventeenth century the female stone/dead bodies would have been performed by boys between the ages of 7-17, here they were performed by a dancer and an actress, both lean and blonde. The dancer performed the stone body of Hermione and the Lady’s corpse, the actress her daughter in both cases but alive and as a spirit, respectively. In both cases, it was unclear to the audience throughout the scene whether the stone/dead body was going to perform reanimation, or continue as a form of inanimate stasis. This was especially powerful in the case of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione becomes reanimate in a gesture that suggests her persecuting husband’s recuperation, but never in fact speaks in that reanimation from stone (if she was ever really convincingly stone at all). The effect was a blurring of that moment of change, questioning whether any change occurred at all, or as a third option, leaving room for individual audience members to interpret the conditions of change individually. While that suggestion might be made by a single play, the comparative and excerpted staging compellingly suggested the notion that a staging could carve out a polyphonous interpretive space.

In the end, two innovations came to the fore in Be Stone No More. In the first, the comparative mechanism highlighted the repetitive invocations of art, artifice, and the forcing of beauty on an object to create art, suggesting a kind of metatheatrics. What conditions of silence provide room for a range of interpretations? Was flexible interpretability a value in the early modern theatrical marketplace? To what degree were the King’s Men, in a drastically reduced and censored marketplace, cultivating competing and comparative resonances through parallel motifs and compositional strategies? In the second, the innovative event format of context, performance, and analysis provided an actual formula for scholarly and performative investments to commingle without having to first prove their respective relevancies to one another. And in an unexpected turn, while most of the evening’s investments were in undermining the Shakespeare Industry’s preeminence in period production choices, it was also a kind of recovery for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play whose criticism is dominated by the puzzle of the oft-quoted stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a Bear” (III.iii). In recuperating comparative and collaborative methods of assessing drama, across disciplines and between works, perhaps it will only be the methods of isolated textual analysis that are in this manner discharged.