It has been much anticipated but now Kenneth Branagh's year-long season at the Garrick Theatre has started in an eclectic season which includes two Shakespeares and those old enemies Terence Rattigan and John Osborne sharing the Branagh banner too. Oddly enough, Osborne was much on my mind when I saw the Rattigan but more of that later.
Let us start with the positives - for the most part THE WINTER'S TALE is a successful production which is co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford. I last saw it in the rather under-par Sam Mendes/Old Vic 2009 production which, although boasting excellent performances from Simon Russell Beale as Leontes and Sinead Cusack as Paulina, disappointed in the large yokel scene which takes up most of the second act.
And guess what? Again I found the Bohemia scenes to be wearing - the scenes of Autolycus gulling the shepherds just seems to go on and on plus the wimpy romance of Florizel and Perdita - yeesh, get me back to the tortured halls of Leontes' miserable Sicilian castle any time. Not that there is anything particularly Italian about Christopher Oram's Edwardian court set.
Leontes' sudden, creeping jealousy of his pregnant wife Hermione and his lifelong friend Polixenes should seemingly swell out of nowhere and Kenneth Branagh certainly did that. I have seen him several times onstage since the 1980s and I constantly felt he was somewhat over-praised. Yes he was good but always felt that maybe in a few years he would be the real deal. Maybe now he has arrived (for Shakespeare at least).
Leontes' jealousy lasts as long as he tells himself he is jealous, when confronted with the sudden death of his son he collapses under the weight of his own guilt which is compounded when he is told that his wife has died. Instrumental in this news is Paulina, Hermione's devoted companion played here with blazing conviction by Dame Judi Dench.
The character of Paulina fits Dench like a glove: she is fiercely loyal, fiercely compassionate, and in denouncing Leontes, just plain fierce. Her authority blazes onstage and she also demonstrates her command of Shakespeare's language by making every line ring true. The final scene is affecting precisely because Dench judges each reveal just right and her late-moment betrothal to John Shrapnel's Camillo is a small jewel of a moment.
Shrapnel and Michael Pennington's luckless Antigonus add their considerable experience to these smaller roles but I found Miranda Raison to be fairly colourless as Hermione, particularly when surrounded with the afore-mentioned actors, probably a reflection on her being younger than her colleagues . It would also be nice to see a Hermione who was angry at Leontes' accusations rather than a doe-eyed victim.
John Dagleish made an impression as the wideboy Autolycus but even he couldn't lift the deadly Bohemian scenes which here featured two clunky dance routines. However the production was always lovely to look at thanks to Oram's seasonal designs and Neil Austin's atmospheric lighting design.
The production is currently playing in repertory with a Terence Rattigan double bill - a short solo piece ALL ON HER OWN which features a spiky Zoe Wanamaker as a widow hitting the bottle over her possible-guilt in her husband's suicide, and also HARLEQUINADE a one-act play which Rattigan had paired with the darker, more famous THE BROWNING VERSION.
With that play I can see it possibly working as a divertissment but as a stand-alone piece it outstayed it's welcome. Branagh is never the most accomplished of comedy actors, he is too knowing and deliberate to just cut loose and his performance as a vain actor-manager touring the provinces with a production of ROMEO AND JULIET shows that. Luckily Wanamaker popped up again as a tippling grand dame of the stage who chewed the scenery with gay abandon. One feels HARLEQUINADE is only there because Branagh is presenting ROMEO AND JULIET later in this season - oh and HARLEQUINADE's actor-manager is interviewing girls for his upcoming production of A Winter's Tale.
Maybe in 1948 it had something to say about the theatre companies who kept touring during the war but the shambolic touring company idea has been done to death by Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF and similar works, and there were times when I sat there, surrounded by guffawing audience members, clueless as to what they found so funny. Although I have admired Rattigan plays in the past, this actually made me side with the writers such as John Osborne in hating the safe, middle-class, old-world attitude of his work.
How odd then that my next theatre visit was to see a revival of Terence Rattigan's 1936 debut success...