“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

This is I think the fourth Winter’s Tale production I’ve seen – more different productions even than Romeo and Juliets or King Lears. It seems like this has become the ultimate Christmas Shakespeare (to be fair the clue as to why is kind of in the title), a comedy that so almost becomes a tragedy at several points and involves the infamous Exit pursued by a bear stage direction.blog 5

This production really plays up the Christmas factor as well, and a Victorian Christmas at that (which seems slightly odd given the obsession with the Greek oracle but oh well, this is theatre, we can suspend our belief). The Sicilian court features a Nutcracker-esque Christmas tree, laden with red and gold presents, boxes which are excitedly opened by little Prince Mamillius and handed round to the adults – Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes – who gasp and thank in childish awe and playfulness. blog 2However, this warm and festive world soon has a cold shadow cast over it, the lighting darkens the wide stone hallways and snow, which at the beginning is tossed joyfully over the audience, drops instead at the back of the stage, and later exclusively on Leontes, a picture of grief with white hair and tortured expression.

Now, this is where my English student-ness comes out, but this, and projections of snow swirling around, seemed designed to make the stage reflect one of the gifts most ostentatiously opened at the beginning: a snow globe. Now this is a trope often used, not just in Christmas entertainment but all the year round to show dreams, these dreams or illusions being shattered (think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story), or a la Sylvia Plath, a stifling glass jar impossible to escape from.blog 1 Obviously, given the relatively dark subject matter (particularly in the first half), it was the latter that director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to focus on. The snow and who is was showered on showed this growing claustrophobia; first of all, a Christmassy sense of togetherness, then the court closing in on itself in the wake of scandal, and then Leontes, alone with his grief and trapped in an icy kingdom of his own making. Even Hermione’s statue set-up had Elsa-from-Frozen levels of frosty beauty, which made it seem like she, too, was trapped in a walled-in winter… and then of course the walls break down, the glass is shattered, and everyone is happy and together yay (except *SPOILER ALERT* Mamillius who’s dead a fact which is always forgotten at the end. I mean, a child died. But oh well get over it and move on. It is Christmas after all.

So as well as getting my lit nerd on, I really enjoyed the less interpretive elements of this production too! Branagh was excellent as the passionately jealous, and then grief-stricken blog 3King Leontes, with Miranda Raison as his resilient, incredibly human, wife Hermione. This is the third time I’ve seen Jessie Buckley in a Shakespearean ‘ingénue’ kind of role (previously she was Miranda in the Globe’s The Tempest and Princess Catherine in the Micheal Grandage Company’s Henry V) and she does pull it off incredibly well, with exactly the right balance of innocence, strength and vitality. Tom Bateman of Shakespeare in Love theatre fame played a vivacious, energetic Florizel who seemed far more at home among the peasants of Bohemia than in the courtly clothes his station required. blog 4In fact, the peasant dance was almost over the top in its determination to focus on the physical and the carnal; especially during the kissing bit of the dance when all the men suddenly started stripping off – which reminded me quite a lot of a university party rather than sheep-shearing festival, but I guess the youthfulness ties the two together? It was definitely fun to watch anyway…

Now, how could I go this far without mentioning the one, the only, Dame Judi Dench, as Paulina. Warm and imperious, she brought both humour and gravity to the stage – particularly in the line I’ve used as my blog title. Her Paulina commanded attention and respect; although she was hilariously blogmanipulative in reminding Leontes of his terrible actions to get him to do things. I kept picturing how they’d have lived day to day for the sixteen years basically alone together – every time they order takeout:
LEONTES: I think I’ll go for the American Hot.

PAULINA: Remember how you caused the untimely deaths of your wife and children because of your outrageous jealousy? And also the death of my own husband?

Leontes bows head in grief

PAULINA: On phone So we’ll have a Margarita each please.

(If someone is a cartoonist and fancies illustrating a situation like this then I would love you forever)

So anyway, back on track. This production of The Winter’s Tale is beautifully designed and very festive, with enough bitterness to make it not a sugar overload. It all feels very filmic, especially the beginning, with lots of atmospheric background music. There were also some really fun comic turns from John Dagliesh as Autoclyus and Jack Colgrave Hirst as Clown. The only element that’s slightly sour is when Paulina and Camillo are conveniently paired together right at the end – but to be fair, that is kind of Shakespeare’s fault. I guess I would have just cut that out if I were Branagh. But that was a very small feature. The actors are great, and the set design is pretty; it’s a lovely production of what seems to have turned into a festive classic.

The Winter’s Tale  at the Garrick Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

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