The year-long residency of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the impressively refurbished Garrick Theatre begins in what is possibly the most anticipated theatrical event of the year.
Opening the season, with Branagh both starring and co-directing with Rob Ashford, is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale running in repertory with Terence Rattigan’s comedy Harlequinade and his one-woman piece All On Her Own.
In The Winter’s Tale Branagh plays Sicilian King Leontes, who becomes convinced that his expectant queen, Hermione (Miranda Raison), has committed adultery with his lifelong friend the King of Bohemia Polixenes (Hadley Fraser). Such is the all-consuming nature of his jealousy that he has Hermione thrown into prison and when she is delivered of a daughter, he declares the child to be illegitimate and orders it to be taken and abandoned in a desolate place, despite the pleading of loyal friend Paulina (Judi Dench).
It’s all passionate and intense stuff and at odds with the play’s idyllic opening scene of a family gathered around a Christmas tree and laughing at home movies projected onto a sheet.
Branagh is riveting as the King whose mental stability unravels and he’s supported by a faultless ensemble cast. Miranda Raison retains a dignified stillness as Hermione, Hadley Fraser is compelling and Michael Pennington is wonderfully understated as Antigonus, who is given the job of taking and abandoning the child.
But acting everyone off the stage is Judi Dench. It’s the sort of performance you watch and think, “Just how is she doing that? How can someone hold my attention just by sitting in a chair, even when another character is speaking?” It takes a special and magical charisma.
Not that all she does is sit in a chair. Start of the second act and we’ve jumped forward sixteen years where Hermione’s daughter has been adopted by a shepherd and named Perdita — Jessie Buckley continuing to enhance her credentials as a classical actress of note — and fate is set to intervene. Setting the scene is Dench as Time. Alone in a single light and holding the audience absolutely transfixed.
The scenes in the countryside possibly go on a tad too long, but they’re saved by Buckley and a nice turn by John Dagleish as vagabond and wandering minstrel Autolycus.
This is a production loaded with emotion and atmosphere and blessed with superb performances by a top quality cast. It’s a triumph for Branagh personally that he’s managed to gather this cast around him, but he must have done an extra little jig when he picked up the phone Dench said yes.
In repertory with The Winter’s Tale is Terence Rattigan’s comedy and love letter to the theatre, Harlequinade. It follows a theatre group led by actor manager Arthur Gosport (Branagh) mounting a production of Romeo and Juliet in a small Northern town under a government scheme to bring culture to the masses — the play is preceded by a real public information film of the time explaining the initiative.
The self-important Gosport in a ridiculous wig is way too old to be playing Romeo and his wife (once again played by Miranda Raison) is pushing it a bit as Juliet as well. Along with the stress of mounting the play and auditioning actors for something called The Winter’s Tale, Gosport faces another problem when an incident from his last visit to the town catches up with him.
This is a funny, charming if slight little piece and backstage comedies have been done better in the years since it was written, but it gives members of the company a chance to flex their comedic muscles, be a little over the top and to send themselves up. Once again Jessie Buckley lights up the stage and there’s a nice cameo from John Shrapnel, who we’re not used to seeing play comedy.
As an intro to Harlequinade we have Rattigan’s All On Her Own, a short piece written for a single actress about a woman talking to her recently deceased husband. Zoe Wanamaker takes the role here and although she invests it with a certain melancholy as the whisky flows, it does rather feel like what it is, a filler to pad out Harlequinade’s modest running time.
All in all though Branagh’s Plays at the Garrick has got off to a flying start with this trio of works and promises much for the coming year.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
The Winter’s Tale is playing until 16 January 2016. Click here for tickets
Harlequinade / All On Her Own is playing until 13 January 2016. Click here for tickets