The revival of Harlequinade, directed by Branagh and Ashford, now playing at the Garrick Theatre (in a 100 minute experience that includes All On Her Own and no intervals) is something of a revelation. Mostly, Harlequinade is seen in conjunction with The Browning Version, one of Rattigan’s masterpieces, usually as a curtain raiser. To my mind, that combination has never worked and Harlequinade has always seemed pale and irksome by comparison with The Browning Version. But, here, released from the curtain raiser position, placed directly in the spotlight, splendidly set up by the intense darkness of All On Her Own, the play can shine.
Dench’s 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.
It is important to be clear about Kidman’s failures because the character she plays, Rosalind Franklin, at least in the version of history which Ziegler endorses in her script, is a towering figure in the unlocking of the DNA double helix, a woman betrayed, belittled and beaten by a pack of self-serving, sanctimonious and utterly vile men. For the play to work, Kidman’s character needs to be inspirational, complicated, difficult, extraordinary; coming across as a mediocre functionary is simply not enough.