Allen — “A sad tale’s best for winter,” chirps a cherubic little boy as he curls up next to a Christmas tree in a cozy room. This sort of comforting and festive scene mixed with impending gloom is the combination that characterizes Shakespeare’s later works. These plays, categorized as “romances,” are bittersweet musings that resemble storybook tales tinged with joy and melancholy.
The Winter’s Tale marks perhaps the darkest and most tragic of the romances, yet its second half still delivers enough love, comedy, and drama to redeem it. The Kenneth Branagh Theatre production, broadcast to cinemas worldwide, taps into both halves of the Tale with feeling, nuance, and insight. (It was screened for one night on Nov. 30; I caught it at the Allen Cinemark. Encore screenings have not been announced yet.)
The Winter’s Tale is a part of Branagh’s project to spend a year-long residency in London’s West End producing, directing, and acting in a series of six plays. He stars in this play and directs along with Rob Ashford (recent Oscars choreographer who also co-directed the 2013 Macbeth with Branagh at the Manchester International Festival). Romeo and Juliet, starring Derek Jacobi, Lily James, and Richard Madden, is the next bit of Bard fare beginning in May, 2016.
At the beginning of the play we are lulled into a false sense of security with a lot of holiday bantering and cheer. There are Christmas decorations, carolers, gifts, old home movies, and friendliness, until…Leontes (Branagh), the King of Sicily gets it into his mind that his childhood buddy, Polixenes (a youthful Hadley Fraser), the King of Bohemia has committed adultery with his wife, Hermione (Miranda Raison).
Leontes’ turn from a (too close?) fawning friendliness with Polixenes to suspicious jealousy is incredibly abrupt in the text, but handled subtly by Branagh. He does eventually become a raging, jealous tyrant, storming and declaring that all around him are a “nest of traitors;” however, he never becomes a caricature, always maintaining at least a kernel of sympathy.
Keeping Leontes in check is Paulina (Judi Dench), the wife of the loyal Sicilian lord Antigonus (Michael Pennington). She is the moral center of the play and the one character who keeps hope (and Hermione) alive in Sicilia. In the wrong hands Paulina can come off as cruel and shrewish, but it is a credit to the Dench’s power that she turns the role into a master class in defiance and female empowerment.
When the action switches to Bohemia in Act Four, Time (Dench) tells us that 16 years have passed and announces the status of the lost Sicilian princess, Perdita (Jessie Buckley) whom Antigonus left to the wilderness on Leontes orders. She is raised as a foundling in the bawdy and bucolic Bohemia where sheep-shearing festivals reign and even charming cutpurses like Autolycus (a nimble-limbed John Dagleish) are tolerated.
The musical numbers are thrilling in their sensuality and highlight Buckley’s countrified charm. She is the “prettiest lowborn lass,” a hippie heiress in disguise. The Bohemian section of the play is rife with comedy, songs, and the excitement of young love. And once we return to the cold, gray, emptiness of Sicilia we appreciate the sunny interlude even more.
Besides handling the psychotic jealousy of Leontes, the other major challenges of the play involve the famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and how to depict the statue of the dead Hermione coming back to life. Branagh and Ashford choose to show a quick video close-up image of bear to avoid the laughter of having an actor in costume, and the statue sequence is lovely and ethereal, orchestrated with lyrical command by Dench.
Branagh’s recent success with non-Shakespearean feature films notwithstanding, his avowed approach to doing classical Shakespeare—a mixture of the contemporary with the traditional; no affected voices or declaiming lines—is welcome. He chose the Garrick Theatre because he wanted audiences to experience “real people in an intimate space,” and, thanks to Christopher Oram’s design, whether in the nearly closed-in confines of Sicilia, or the sun-dappled countryside of Bohemia even cinema audiences feel a part of the action.
Shakespeare’s tragic fairytale is only slightly sad, and, in this case, one best told for winter.