The Winter’s Tale may not be a ‘problem play’ in the original sense, but it’s certainly one of Shakespeare’s most problematic and flawed works. But then, would you expect anything less from a play whose defining moment is a stage direction?
Part of the Branagh season at the Garrick Theatre, the title is taken literally in this production. The kingdom of Sicily is caught in an eternal winter – a winter of discontent no less – though it begins charmingly enough with a family Christmas. That, though, only makes the tragic plot more potent. The wind howls, the snow swirls, and marble halls are filled with ominous strings and haunting hymns, setting the scene for the play’s supernatural finale. This is the backdrop for what begins as a psychological thriller: Branagh’s King Leontes suspects his wife Hermione and friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, are having an affair, causing his maddening descent from benevolent king to jealous tyrant. This is a twisting, brooding play of the mind, with Branagh offering gripping and precisely delivered monologues, matched by Miranda Raison’s elegant Hermione.
Judi Dench, though, is the real star attraction – at least, it’s her face on the posters. Paulina, Hermione’s serving lady, is a key (if slight) role, but Dench gives a bold performance. Even when on the periphery, her stage presence is enough to grab our attention, though it’s nothing we haven’t seen from her before. The remaining cast are all excellent, delivering Shakespeare’s verse with great clarity (even from the back of the stalls).
Even this production, though, can’t compensate for the play’s inherent flaws. The pastoral second half is less a contrast, more a juxtaposition of a totally different play. Sixteen years later we move to Bohemia, a land of perpetual springtime. The sun shines and the common folk frolic in the fields singing bawdy songs. Branagh seems to have purposefully exaggerated the two kingdoms – the rustic Bohemia and the icy cool Sicily – which brings a sense of cinematic fantasy. But there’s no hiding the fact that, despite some lucid staging, the plot loses its way in the second half as Shakespeare frantically ties up the loose ends of tragedy into a neat comedic romance. All tension is lost as the play’s opening evolves into something entirely (and disappointingly) different.
There remains, though, a sense of magical atmosphere throughout. The infamous bear is frighteningly handled; Dench returns after the interval as ‘Time’ to deliver a monologue amongst fluttering snowflakes; Sicily is transformed from familial warmth to icy pillars of washed out majesty; and the final coup de theatre, the reviving statue of Hermione dressed as an ethereal snow queen, is beautifully staged. Branagh brings plenty of directorial flair to this production (raising expectations for next year’s Romeo and Juliet), but what begins as a richly dark, gothic tale of psychotic jealousy eventually fizzles out into Disney’s Frozen.