The View from G21: A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company)

To Canterbury to see an ‘encore’ showing of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s version of A Winter’s Tale.

A Winter’s Tale is like Pericles, Prince of Tyre – broken-backed and apparently requiring some padding to make it bearable. In Kenneth Branagh’s production, this takes the form of sexually charged country dancing at the sheep-shearing supper. Actually, I lied. It’s not very sexually charged, and not really country dancing, either, choreographed to within an inch of its life, and about as abandoned as a night out in a temperance hotel.

Which pretty much sums up this production. It’s staged in this gorgeous little chocolate-box theatre (the Garrick, on London’s Charing Cross Road), lovingly restored, and like the theatre, the play is very varnished, very traditional (I think ‘Ken’ would probably want us to say ‘classical’) in its presentation, and serviceable. Very serviceable. Like the best black coat so beloved of earlier generations. Everything is there and works fine, all the boxes are ticked, and it’s forgettable.

Or worse, it’s Shakespeare like it used to be. Paul Kincaid and I both commented that it was a very old-fashioned version of Shakespeare, nostalgic almost in its presentation. Nothing here that hadn’t been seen many times before. Shakespeare for people who don’t want to have to think too hard. (The woman behind us adored it; seemed to think it was the best thing ever, as though Branagh were leading the Second Coming. When she went for ice cream, her companions proceeded to rip the play apart. My thought was that she clearly hadn’t seen either the RSC’s Othello or its Henry V.)

Yet, look at the play. What we have is very strange. To begin with, a king suddenly becomes convinced that his wife is carrying another man’s child (how long has Polixenes been visiting Leontes’ court, for heaven’s sake?), is seized by rabid jealousy, and successively alienates his best friend, his trusted advisor, his wife, and the senior lady of the court, while losing his baby daughter when he orders her abandoned, and another trusted advisor (husband to the senior lady of the court) who is eaten by a bear. Oh, and to rub it in, his son and heir dies. The oracle at Delphi tells him he was a dick head, and he comes to his senses. He then spends the next sixteen years having his remorse stoked by the senior court lady, who has actually hidden away his wife and failed to mention this fact.

Forward sixteen years, and the lost daughter has been found and raised  by a shepherd, has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son, who has neglected to mention he’s a prince, and they’re on the verge of marrying when Polixenes suddenly storms in, forbids it (having either apparently forgotten anything he ever learned about jealousy sixteen years earlier), prompting them to leg it to Sicily (at the suggestion of Camillo, formerly Leontes’ advisor, who does have a memory), where Leontes takes them in; they are hotly pursued by Polixenes and then blink, and you totally miss the reconciliation because it happens off-stage. But to make up for that you get Hermione as a statue suddenly brought back to life.

Seriously, how batshit crazy is this play? There is a faint implication that Polixenes has fallen for Perdita himself, which would be interesting to work with, and clearly Leontes’ sudden rage needs to be looked at more deeply. But in this production nothing, not a whisper, not a hint of the weird psychological dynamics underpinning this play.

A genuinely innovative director would have a field day with this. As it is, Sicily is Ruritania and Bohemia is Mummerset, and everyone’s uniforms were clearly a job lot from a Romanov yard sale. So far, so very 1960s. The music, on the other hand, seemed to come from the file marked ‘sentimental comedy’, and was frequently extremely intrusive.

And Ken, dear Ken, sweet Ken, is so obviously a pillar of the establishment it pains one slightly to remember how he really was the Second Coming once upon a time.

Which is not to say there were not pleasing moments. Kenneth Branagh still speaks verse beautifully (though while he might claim his cast is unmannered in its speaking, its unmannered speech is rather … er, mannered), and this time, unlike his Macbeth, he wasn’t staging the play in the aisle of a church, on a layer of earth thoroughly wetted by a theatrical rainstorm, so there is that.

Judi Dench is … well, she’s Judi Dench. Almost enough said, but goodness, she puts some fire into the role of Paulina (who really is an evil old bitch, though perhaps  unsurprising, given that Leontes as good as fed her husband, Antigonus, to the bear).

Michael Pennington as Antigonus –it’s not that much of a role, all things considered, but he managed to suffuse his part with immense tenderness when he talks to the rolled-up bundle of scarves with sound effect that is the infant Perdita. It was probably the most moving moment in the performance. Jimmy Yuill also turns in a sterling performance as Perdita’s adoptive father, the Shepherd. Other than that, no one with a significant speaking role was actively bad, but neither was there anything notable about them as individuals (except for the fool-figure who, as Paul Kincaid pointed out, needs to play the young Ezra Pound in something very soon).

If this production were a scientific instrument, it would be an orrery. Everything in its place, moving happily in its ordained orbit, and utterly uncontroversial.

Garrick livestreaming is clearly in its infancy. The cameras zoom through the audience onto the stage, and that’s the last you see of the audience, so this is unequivocally theatre as cinema. And as cinema, it worked fine. The audience didn’t really laugh much so one quickly forgot they were there. The interval fillers were mostly adverts for the Garrick season that almost everyone watching the livestream or the encore, won’t be able to get to. The season looks great, but going to the Garrick is clearly being positioned as something aspirational. The audience they showed was very young. The audience surrounding me was not.

What is frustrating is that the modern plays in the KBTC’s Garrick season are seemingly not being streamed, not even Lolita Chakrabhati’s Red Velvet. I suppose it’s not surprising, given the presumed cost set against likely interest (though I’m interested, dammit). Having looked at the theatre’s website, the tickets for the productions are eye-wateringly expensive, unless you don’t mind sitting behind a pillar (only then you will most likely not be sitting with the person you plan to attend the production with, and possibly not be attending the same performance if you both wish to be cheapskates and sit behind pillars). And clearly there are no plans to tour these productions because, when it comes down to it, they’re boutique theatre, made specially for the boutique Garrick Theatre.

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