“If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.”
Leontes: Act Five, Scene Three; The Winter's Tale.
It's Winter. Christmas. The Royal palace is a warm and friendly place, filled with love and indulgence, carollers making merry music and the eager Prince keen for just one present from the tree. The King's best friend is visiting, his heavily pregnant Queen is radiant with motherhood. It could scarcely be happier.
It starts with a glance. Then a longer look. Then a stare. Along with the carols comes Jealousy. You can almost see it infecting the King, crippling his mind, his reason, subverting his passions, creating an unfounded tyrannical rage. It's frightening to watch the change – Mr Hyde is an amateur compared to this transformation.
Later, after the Prince is dead and cold, the Queen has been wrongfully imprisoned and the newborn Princess has been sent to her exiled doom, the old, faithful woman confronts the King. He is ailing, mourning his lost Prince, nearly unhinged with the capricious madness that has claimed his regal soul. She spares him not. She lacerates him for his tyrannical rages, lists his losses and victims, every word a knife in his heart. Then she floors him – the Queen is dead. Unwavering, she lets his howls of despair shatter the moonlight.
If there is a dry eye in the house, it belongs to a corpse.
This is Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's revelatory, unforgettable and game changing revival of The Winter's Tale, now playing at the Garrick Theatre. Forget the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Forget the Nunn War Of The Roses. Forget the RSC's tetralogy due soon at the Barbican. This production of A Winter's Tale is unquestionably THE Shakespearean event of the year.
The play is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote and is often regarded as challenging. But not here. This production is alive in every way, full of passion and precise power, and fuelled by voice work the like of which has not been heard recently in the West End. It feels fresh and invigorating; almost as if it were being seen clearly for the first time. This is a play which has seen many many dire productions; here it is as powerful as Hamlet.
The story is told with brilliant clarity and intense emotion. These actors, as all should, find energy in the very words of Shakespeare, and that energy propels graceful, intriguing, and overwhelmingly purposeful performances. It is like a fire crackling – the words are alive with the music of their purpose.
Christopher Oram's set is utterly gorgeous: all red and gold for the warm start, then almost blank for Perdita's abandonment in Bohemia, then rustic, then, as Act Two begins, winter snow cascades around a moonlit Judi Dench (delivering the speech assigned to Time by Shakespeare – an inspired touch), then the snow mounds are revealed as wool and we are amongst the rustics, and then back to the original palace, now bleak and blisteringly cold white, as the ravages of despair have accumulated over the years. Oram solves the problem of “Exit, pursued by a bear” simply but brilliantly. His costumes are equally brilliant; sumptuous, utterly delicious in every way.
The lighting from Neil Austin is breath-taking: subtly he changes mood and indicates perspective with light. You see Hermione and Polixenes as Leontes sees them, but also as they actually are; you feel the power of the Oracle at Delphi; the magical moment when Dench/Time tells of the passage of 16 years is so beautiful as to be almost painful; and then the introduction of Florizel and Perdita is achieved with a clever lighting device. But the immaculate beauty of the statue Paulina reveals to Leontes at the last is Austin's greatest achievement here, and there are many more, too numerous to list.
Branagh is in tremendous, unbeatable form as Leontes. He is superb from start to finish, utterly and totally believable. His transformation from adoring husband and father to green-eyed monster is incredibly detailed, every mis-step clear. When he finally appears in Act Two, grey of hair and heart, dressed in black, broken by his sins, he is worthy of sympathy; quite a feat for a man who has unfairly accused his wife of adultery and thereby caused his son to die of a broken spirit, as well as exiling his new born daughter to probable death by exposure.
It's all in the delivery of the verse. Branagh infuses the text with such life that Leontes is humanised, despite his jealous extremes. Grace, joy, fear, suspicion, anger, confusion, rage, repentance, regret, hope – no word he speaks does not have the right ring to it, and his richly drawn Leontes shines.
Miranda Raison is beautiful in absolutely every way as Hermione, grace and spirit in every move and glance. She makes a perfect match for Branagh, and her trial scene is brutal and harrowing. Her rapport with Hadley Fraser's Polixenes is spot on, laying the ground for Leontes' nightmarish response. The moment when she finally beholds her daughter, Perdita, is astonishing, pain and joy in a perfect moment of motherhood.
Fraser makes a terrific Polixenes, and when he turns on his son, it is clear why he and Leontes were such good friends. Michael Pennington is superb as Antigonus, a model verse-speaker, and his final moments, before the Bear takes his life, are extraordinary. John Shrapnel's Camillo is beautifully judged, expertly spoken, and provides a strong sense of commitment and duty to monarchs who lose their way.
The scenes in Bohemia can fall flat, but not here. There is a lusty, earthy eroticism about the place which is entirely ripe and right. Tom Bateman's very manly Florizel and Jessie Buckley's radiant shepherdess Perdita (her opening line brings down the house) are fantastic together, ardent and joyous. Their love is real, urgent, compelling. The scene where Fraser's Polixenes condemns their union is just as impactful, wrong, and stupidly zealous as Branagh's merciless misjudgment of Hermione.
Jimmy Yuill and Jack Colgrave Hirst are in delirious sync as Shepherd and Clown; very funny, very human. When the Shepherd is condemned to death by Polixenes, it is a gripping and frankly horrifying moment, which both play perfectly. They have great rapport, too, with John Dagleish's spirited and winning Autolycus, as nimble and humorous a rogue as Shakespeare wrote.
Late in the play, there is a somewhat awkward scene where key events happen offstage but are described onstage. But there is nothing awkward here: indeed, Adam Garcia is brilliant in this scene and it is difficult to resist tears at the tale he tells. Stuart Neal, Jaygann Ayeh and Michael Rouse are all exceptionally good in an ensemble which never really puts a foot wrong.
But, without question, the evening belongs to Dench.
The history books record Peggy Ashcroft playing Paulina for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 in a way which revolutionised the way people thought of the role. Dench certainly revolutionises Paulina for me here – I have never seen a production of The Winter's Tale where Paulina was the central, motivating force of humanity and goodness. But Dench makes her so.
From the very first moment of this production, when she appears from behind a curtain with an excited Mamillius and shepherds him to the Christmas tree, Dench brings an intensity, an energy, a pulse to the production which belies her 80 odd years. She is more nimble and forceful than many of those half her age and everything she does and says adds value, meaning and pleasure to the evening.
Her verse speaking is unrivalled. She picks each word and gives it full, accurate weight, landing the sense, purpose and exact emotion of every glittering phrase. She is wily, wise and wonderful. Her pained berating of Leontes when she tells him Hermione is dead is one of the greatest moments in theatre I have ever witnessed. So powerful, it knocks the breath from your body.
Her speech as Time is unspeakably beautiful, a musing that insinuates itself into your soul. Her face while Hermione is on trial, where Paulina says nothing, is alive with expression, fearfully sad yet holding on to hope. When Dench unveils the statue, it is magical, so perfectly has she set up the moment, planted the seed of what is to come, been a prism of redemptive possibility. The happiest moment of the play is also hers, when Leontes marries her to Camillo, perhaps the first good thing he has done in 16 years.
Dench is transcendent, a force of nature the like of which we may never see again. To see and hear her in this production is a privilege as much as a pleasure.
The only regret the evening provides is the stark realisation that audiences do not hear Shakespeare spoken properly, as it is here, very often these days. Would that it were otherwise. Hopefully, the National Theatre, the RSC and directors everywhere see this production and learn from it. Craft is critical.
This is pure theatrical magic. The Winter's Tale for our times. It is mostly sold out, but it should – nay, must – be seen by anyone who is curious about acting, theatre or Shakespeare: it's a masterclass in absolutely every way.