Thursday, 10 December 2015

Branagh at The Garrick

Kenneth Branagh's season at the Garrick has begun with a marvellous production of 'The Winter's Tale' with a separate Terence Rattigan's double bill of 'Harlequinade' and 'All On Her Own'.

'All On Her Own' is a short, solo play with the wife of a newly dead man wondering whether his death was actually suicide and going through the guilt she can't help but feel. Zoe Wanamaker took the part of the smart wife with a drink in her hand as she wonders about her late husband's last hours. Did he not go to bed deliberately so he could swallow too many pills with whisky or was it an accident? We'll never know.

More fun was 'Harlequinade' about a repertory theatre company playing an opening night in some small town somewhere. They've been on the road for so long with so many productions that it's all a bit of a blur but in this one we have Branagh as the company manager and lead actor playing Romeo despite his age (I loved the reveal of whipping off the very convincing wig!). It's a farce of ludicrous proportions and is a bit of light relief that had some of the older members of the audience guffawing every now and then (not sure what at, though). Mistaken identities, theatrical in-jokes, everything you could think of except falling down trousers, it's all in there. I enjoyed it for what it was and Zoe Wanamaker played the part of the rather tipsy nurse.

The production of 'The Winter's Tale' was altogether in a different league (quite probably due to the writing, of course). This is one of Shakespeare's odd plays in which jealousy emerges out of the blue and wrecks a marriage, no sign of it until it's there and that makes me wonder at where that central motif came from. Leontes, king of Sicily, is entertaining his friend the king of Bohemia when he grows jealous of his relationship with Leontes' pregnant wife, Hermione. And that's where the problems begin. It's set at Christmas with the giving of presents, ice skating and everything festive you'd get up to in Sicily. I always think the kingdoms should be swapped round, with Bohemia being the winter kingdom, not Sicily.

Jealousy is the ending of the marriage and Hermione dies in childbirth and Leontes banishes the child since he can't believe it is his. The child, of course, survives and grows up to be a beautiful young women who, coincidentally, falls in love with Bohemian king's son. Queue complications and a rather long rustic scene. I've never been a fan of Shakespeare's rustic scenes but these seemed really quite sweet and delightful compared to previous productions I've seen, with the love of the young people coming through as the driving force.

They eventually go to Sicily to marry and find themselves in Leontes' court when it's revealed that Hermione didn't actually die all those years ago, but has been alive as a statue all this time, cared for by Paulina, a senior courtier. There's no explanation of this phenomenon or why she might want to get together with Leontes again but it works, particularly the big reveal with everyone now having grey hair to show the moving of the years.

It's not the most satisfying of Shakespeare's plays but I really liked this production and there's a great partnership between Kenneth Branagh as Leontes and Judi Dench as Paulina. I loved the set that placed the play at Christmas in an opulent and red-plush Edwardian court with people swapping presents and playing out the Christmas spirit, including going ice skating. There was even a big Christmas Tree and the supporting cast came to the stage through the audience blowing horns and singing. It was a great start.

I think the production is going to be screened in cinemas so if you get the chance I'd urge you to see it - it's worth it, believe me.

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