“The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down”

Henry VI part 1, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

If there was ever a political year we can be certain will be dramatised, it’s 2016. One can only hope it will be James Graham writing the script, given the poignancy and wittiness he lends 1970s politics in This House. blog-3First produced in the National in 2012, this revival was clearly calculated to highlight a growing sense of political déjà vu – see the first three lines of the blurb for details: “Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?”

Set amongst the Whips’ offices in the heart of parliament, the play sees the harassed and strained Whips attempt to control a bunch of chaotic and unruly MPs in a government which is hanging by a thread. Sick and dying politicians are wheeled in for motion after motion because each and every vote matters like never before. It’s this atmosphere of chaos, the real drama of politics, which the play captures so well.

The protagonists are the two Deputy Chief Whips. Steffan Rhodri (aka Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey) plays the Labour hardman Walter Harrison, whilst Nathaniel Parker is his slickly spoken Tory opponent, Jack Weatherill. Both of these characters were engaging and, crucially, likeable. blog-4As a rule, it’s the unlikeable characters who create better theatre (see Hedda Gabler, Richard III, A View From the Bridge for details). Here, however, it felt important to give both men some sort of integrity, perhaps because of the political subject. It’s refreshing to see people with contrasting opinions and world-views represented as equally understandable, and equally human. It’s not that the stereotypes of stuck-up Tory and chippy Labourite weren’t there; Malcolm Sinclair was gloriously pompous as Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, whilst as his Labour counterpart Phil Daniels was equally gloriously foul-mouthed a la Malcom Tucker. But whilst showing the ludicrousness of British politics in abundance, This House also paints an overall picture of the nobility at the heart of the system. Throughout the play, frazzled MPs complain about the presence of people messing up an otherwise perfect way of government. And whilst that may be true, the ending shows the flipside; that human emotions, codes of conduct, and honour systems, are also part of the beauty of the British political system. blogYou come away with a deep sense of respect for the people behind-the-scenes, who dedicate their lives to making sure the party they believe is right remains in power – even if a sense of futility often haunts their frantic manoeuvrings.

Phew. That’s enough lyricism for one review. Back to the practicalities of theatre. The staging at the Garrick Theatre is mostly well done. There is a sense of streamlined chaos to the people pacing back and forth within the two Whip offices onstage. The best bit of direction is having the Speaker of the House announce each character by their title as they enter (e.g. “the Member for Oxfordshire East”). A small issue was that the Speaker changed after the interval – in itself not a problem, but it made it appear like this new Speaker was a character who’d already appeared. Which he wasn’t. Just a bit unnecessarily confusing.

I also had a big problem with a part of the staging. The blog-6offices are surrounded by the wooden walls of the House of Commons, with a whole upper level of green seats filled with audience members looking down on the action. This in itself is a great idea, an attempt to recreate the intimacy and audience engagement of the Dorfman. However, any action on this upper level was completely invisible to those sitting in the back half of the stalls (like me). The majority of the drama, to be fair, took place on the mainstage, but quite a few scenes (including one immediately after a key character’s death) were totally hidden from view. I understand transfers are difficult, I understand older theatres are built with different requirements, and I understand this may have looked fantastic to the rest of the audience, but theatre is expensive. Just getting there takes effort and time and money, and I think directors like Jeremy Herrin should factor in the view from every seat when they produce a show. That’s not to say everyone has to have a full view at all times – that’s just unachievable – but it shouldn’t be physically impossible for a whole section of audience to see entire scenes.

Anyway, rant over. Despite these flaws, this is an engaging, informative and witty political drama, with an important sense of poignancy throughout.blog-5 The ensemble cast are excellent; I particularly liked Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor, the only female Whip, and Kevin Doyle as her boss Michael Cocks. For someone who knew virtually nothing about this period of politics, the anecdotes and stories that feature (including Michael Heseltine seizing the parliamentary mace and John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance) seem almost unbelievable. But funny. The blackly comedic atmosphere is what this play gets right. It makes for an entertaining and powerful night out – just don’t sit at the back of the stalls.

This House at the Garrick Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

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“Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again”

Venus and Adonis, line 1020

William Shakespeare

What is it about Ibsen that inspires the most beautiful lighting design? Ghosts was gorgeous, Little Eyolf, for all its flaws, was beautiful, and now Ivo van Hove’s new Hedda Gabler is suffused with the most stunning sunlight, streaming in from one huge wall-window in the stylish white set.blog-6 Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being trapped inside, away from nature, if I get all English nerd about it. Whatever it is, I’m in favour. The streamlined design of Hedda’s apartment, filling the entire expansive stage of the Lyttleton at the National, makes the ensuing chaos all the more shocking.

I feel like I should warn; this is the very first Hedda I’ve ever seen, so I can’t really compare Patrick Marber‘s translation to any thing else. I did think his classic mix of beautiful and brutal language worked well, was easy on the ear and yet heightened.  I also can’t do one of those extended comparisons with great Heddas of years and theatres gone by. blogRuth Wilson, however, seems to me someone whose performance everyone will appreciate. With the same passionate cruelty she shows as Alice in Luther, her Hedda is by turns raging, witty, seductive, wretched, and elated, but always always utterly mesmerising. The beauty of allowing the whole stage to be just one, largely empty, set is the really the beauty of theatre; you can let your eye wander all over the stage. You don’t have to focus on the person talking all the time, and with Wilson in the background, you can indulge this temptation to the max.
There’s always something interesting to look at. I have to say, I’m intrigued to see how this will work out in the National Theatre Live screening in the new year. Let’s hope they don’t direct our gazes too much, because that would really ruin part of the beauty of this production.

The cast supporting Wilson do not quite match her, but this is no surprise. It feels like they are taking a step back on purpose to let her shine, rather than competing for attention.blog-4 The play is named after her character after all! Rafe Spall grows increasingly threatening as Brack as the play continues, and his final scene with Wilson is classic van Hove menace. Not give anything away – but think blood and lots of it. Not quite the bucket loads like at the end of A View from the Bridge, but a fair amount. Not to sound too much like Anna Mann, but “it was visceral, it was real, it was true”. And for once I mean that non-ironically.

Against the almost sadistic cruelty of these two characters, Kyle Soller as Hedda’s husband Tesman and Sinéad Matthews as school acquaintance Mrs Elvsted bring some much needed sweetness to the stage.
Just like the set, what this production understands is that it is the light which draws attention to the dark, and this is what these supporting characters provide. I was pleasantly surprised with the independence of Mrs Elvsted; she was like a Nora liberated from her Doll’s House. Matthews’ husky voice worked well in the role, although sometimes (very rarely) it became rather too pathetically plaintive for my liking.blog-5  Soller, meanwhile, bounded about the stage, his face showing every high and every low as the emotions hit him, his childish enthusiasm for slippers and tears for his ill aunt contrasting completely with Wilson’s gleeful cruelty. As his rival Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji was similarly impassioned, and Éva Magyar was inscrutable as the constantly present and constantly ignored maid Berte.

This is a production of force and passion and energy, revolving around Wilson’s captivating performance. Hedda may not be someone I’m able to understand, but she is certainly someone I’m totally intrigued by. blog-3From the moment you walk into the auditorium, Wilson is there, head down, centre-stage piano, playing the same few notes over and over again. Her ennui is evident; and the repetition lulls us into the same mood, desperate for a proper melody, some proper action. Speaking of, the soundtrack to this production is great, the piano refrain returning transformed into a full song, plus excerpts of better known tunes. But really it is the set that sums up the production for me; a site of beautiful chaos, it provides a simply white background where dark and dirt can shock us even more.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. Shock horror I just realised I used the quote in my last post “I would not be queen for all the world” on a review before! Rest assured this will (hopefully) not be happening again for a while. Blame Shakespeare for not writing enough sentences with ‘queen’ in them…

“I would not be a queen for all the world”

Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Getting to see not one, but two, great, older actresses live is never less than a treat. Add the intense theatricality of these actresses switching roles on the flip (well, spin) of a coin, and you have a stagey must-see. The Almeida was already onto a winner when they cast Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in the same play. Luckily the actors are not let down by either the production or the script of Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – and the coin toss turns out to be far more than a gimmick.21995_show_portrait_large

For here, the two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots), are two sides of the same coin. The former a Protestant and a calculating politician, the latter a Catholic and a fervent lover, their differences are evident. Yet the dual casting highlights their similarities on top of this. Both raised to rule, with a huge sense of entitlement, they were also both imprisoned for long stretches of time by their own family members. The set emphasises this sense of entrapment, with the audience almost surrounding a circular, boxing ring-esque stage. Even though it is Mary who is jailed in this play, as Elizabeth paces about the small space it is clear that she, too, is confined in her role.

One of the most striking scenes for me occurred towards the end, the stage revolving as Mary (Stevenson, when I saw it) was preparing for her execution, Elizabeth (Williams) to face her people. Whilst the Stuart, gowned in a simblog-5ple nightdress, was surrounded by women and taking Holy Communion, the Tudor was forced into full Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff, huge hoop, dead white face-paint and bejewelled wig, assisted only by men. The rest of the production is entirely in modern dress, making this transformation even more powerful. Before, Elizabeth’s velvet pantsuit makes her fit in with her male courtiers; we can see her as a modern female politician, and therefore her harshness and vanity are less excusable. The period costume reminds the audience of just how difficult it was to be a woman in general at the time, and particularly a woman in power. What the production gets crucially right is emphasising the complexities of these characters, retaining a balance so that, for me at least, it was virtually impossible to decide who to agree with.

With one thousand, two hundred and nineteen lines between the two main roles, learning the script alone is an accomplishment for Stevenson and Williams. In the parts I saw them play, I couldn’t fault them; Stevenson was a fiery, incensed Mary, even as Williams was haughty and turbulent Elizabeth. I’d love to see them the other way round to see how much their portrayals differ – although of course the coin-spinning element means there are no guarantees!

The rest of the cast varies. John Light is incredibly intense as the blog-4cowardly, flatterer Leicester, making his weak characteristics clear whilst also showing enough passion to make it clear why both Queens fall for him. Vincent Franklin, too, is powerful as the hard-line judiciary, Burleigh, with David Jonsson, Carmen Monroe and Sule Rimi all putting in strong performances. However, there were a couple of roles that became rather proclamatory. Rudi Dharmalingam as the young rebel Mortimer, was particularly guilty of this, the words becoming quotation-marked ‘speeches’ rather than spontaneous dialogue.

Saying this, even though this production is a lengthy one – over three hours long, including the interval – it is a tribute to the cast and crew that it doesn’t actually feel that long. When my dad and I saw the first act alone was an hour and fifty minutes, we groaned out loud. Weirdly, though, the first half breezed by; it’s the second half that starts to drag. blogIt’s the trouble with a play about real history. Most of us know Mary’s going to die at the end, so her many farewell speeches to countless admirers and handmaidens who only appear at this point begin to feel more like hindrances to action, than particularly stimulating in themselves. Just hurry up and die already!

The production is classically Almeida/Icke, especially the sound design, with almost imperceptible underlying notes subtly creating a tense atmosphere, and dramatic bass drops at every dramatic moment. There is also a curious ticking noise which appears every so often. I struggled with this. Part of me appreciated the sense of impending doom it brought, but it came in and out so randomly I feel like a spent way too long trying to figure out why it came in only at those moments, so that it actually distracted some of the time. #EnglishStudentProblems. blog-3Still, overall the soundscape adds to the tension, and Laura Marling’s songs are particularly effective (I mean, I just like Laura Marling’s music anyway!). The brick wall of the Almeida once again serves as a simple backdrop, with an added element to create the shock factor of Mary’s final execution.

The audience is likewise typically Almeidian (new word, roll with it). Mainly older, middle-class, North London intelligentsia, there are frequent knowing titters and chuckles at any of the overt references to Brexit; and there are plenty of those. The timeliness of the production is stressed constantly – rightly so in many cases, the focus on appealing to a mass audience particularly relevant. I just found the laughter at the idea of these ignorant masses rather smug – although perhaps that’s a problem with the audience, not the production. It would be interesting to see how it would play to an audience made up of less of the metropolitan elite. This is, then, a far more timely production than one might expect of a play about the late sixteen-hundreds. The programme is really great, jam-packed with articles and photos. The coin toss is a great way of creating a tension you can only really get with live theatre and the two actresses are fabulous – this is definitely you want to get tickets for.

Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre: 4/5 stars

“I defy you, stars!”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

What makes a five star show?blog 1

To be honest, this is kind of an unanswerable question, but the (very minor) Twitter controversy over my latest “confused” review of Kinky Boots has made me realise perhaps I need to make it a little clearer how I decide my production star ratings.

Many people, including the lovely and incredibly talented West End Wilma felt I was a little harsh giving Kinky Boots only three stars, despite a pretty positive review overall. Now, I concede I definitely wrote that review in rather a hurry, and so it probably does feel a bit confused. However, I stand by the rating.

What’s surprising that usually I’m criticised over being overly generous! And it’s true, I very rarely give a two or one star review – partly because I genuinely do find something to enjoy or something that interests me in almost everything I see (hooray for great theatre!); and partly perhaps because I see more West End and less Fringe theatre (not that Fringe theatre is in anyway worse – in fact it’s often better and more original to boot – but there’s less budget available and with less publicity, perhaps less constant checking for success – though if I’m wrong on this, do correct me!).

My reviews mostly vary between 3 and 4 star ratings, and sometimes I even cheekily sneak half stars in for when I really want to differentiate between very similar but slightly different shows. tumblr_msbcpvIVtG1stovino1_500

A five star show, however, is far more rare. A five star show has to have something other than a great cast, fab set and magnificent directing. For me, it has to be a production that leaves me slightly amazed; one that I just want to talk about to everyone I meet; one that either really makes me laugh or really makes me think. It’s a kind of undefinable quality that perhaps has more to do with me than than entirely the show itself.

Despite this, my aim is always to give five stars to the things I can’t recommend highly enough, the things I truly think you would enjoy and the shows I’m just desperate for you to see so that we can have intense fandom discussions about it!

Urinetown, The Trial, King Charles III have all left me flabbergasted and therefore, in my view, earned their five stars. Brilliant productions like Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale and the RSC’s Death of Salesman got four stars because they were technically superb but I didn’t get the feeling, where I want to grab people on the tube and force them to come see it with me because I just know their lives will be better if they do. Kinky Boots got three stars because it was enjoyable, but I felt Charlie was a bit of a weak protagonist; there were elements, such as Lola’s struggle to be accepted in Northampton, that could have been capitalised on further; and I have no real desire to see it over and over again.

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think it’s infuriating not to reward technically excellent productions, or perhaps you just did get “the feeling” from Kinky Boots or something else I’ve three-starred. As to the latter, that is absolutely your right, and it’s one of the things I love most about theatre; that everyone has their own favourite that suddenly thrills and inspired them, and that you can’t predict an audience’s reaction to anything. To those arguing the former, again, that is your perogative. But to feel something is, I think, the point of theatre, and a production technically superb that leaves me cold is not one I would want to recommend unhesitatingly to anyone else.

“Wife and child / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love.”

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Little Eyolf is an Ibsen play I’ve never actually heard of before, but the five stars I gave director Richard Eyre’s previous Ibsen production at the Almeida Theatre, Ghosts, meant I expected much from the same writer-director-theatre combo.

Indeed, many elements of the production are very similar. blog 5In the script there’s the classic themes of family, claustrophobia, marriage, women and, oh yeah, a love bordering on incest. Not sure I really want to know why Ibsen was quite so preoccupied with this theme… but I think it’s best to move on quite quickly. The set design, meanwhile, is also similar in its use of a single unchanging room and a dramatic sky in the background. As the show begins, we are greeted by a cool, spacious, pale wooden patio, a lower path behind, and dramatic, changing sky behind. A glowing sun rose from behind craggy mountains, and then was speedily covered by darkening clouds. Light, as in Ghosts, is used by Eyre, designer Tim Hatley, and lighting designer Peter Mumford to dramatise the domestic.

To summarise for those who, like me, had no idea what the plot of Little Eyolf is about; Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy) returns to his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard), sister Asta (Eve Posonby) and disabled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) from a trip away in the mountains, having experienced an epiphany; Eyolf is the most important thing in his life, and he will stop working, stop writing, in order to spend more time with the boy. But if you’re thinking “wow, this sounds ideal, what a great father” thenblog 1 think again. The tension between Rita and Asta, and Alfred and Rita, is palpable from the very beginning, and Alfred’s decision, followed by devastating tragedy, serves as a catalyst, letting all the bitter heated friction come pouring out in floods.

Now, I personally don’t think that this is one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, but it still has some striking themes. However, Coy as Alfred Allmers really let this production down. If you look back at my reviews, I’m not generally one to criticise actors – perhaps because of my sense of the director’s ultimate power, perhaps because the acting standard is so high nowadays, perhaps because I’m a softy.

But this stilted and proclamatory performance was flawed enough that all three of my companions commented on it immediately after the drama ended. blog 3The was Coy played Alfred as this buttoned-up man suddenly dealing with unexpected emotion made no sense when you thought even a little bit about the character’s backstory; Eyre must also be partly to blame here.

Luckily for Eyre, Coy, and us, the two female leads are excellent, and the strength of the production lies predominantly on their capable shoulders. Leonard plays Rita with unspeakable bitterness, and yet her unmotherly emotions, usually an instant cause for condemnation of a character, are expressed with such passion and conviction that, whilst we may not empathise, we can certainly sympathise with her suffering. Posonby, meanwhile, plays a far more sympathetic character and skilfully is able to make the ‘goodness’ of Aster still interesting; the little sister of Alfred, devoted to him, and Rita, and Eyolf, she could so easily be bland or take second place to the fascination of Rita, and yet it was Posonby my eyes were constantly drawn to, even when she had no lines.blog 4

The supporting actors have little to play with really, but the actors did well with what they were given; Sam Hazeldine is likeable as Bjarne but overshadowed by Eileen Walsh’s magnificent Rat Woman, complete with heavy Irish brogue, handbag chihuahua and blackened teeth. Billy Marlow as the eponymous Eyolf was one of the cutest children I have ever seen onstage, and played his surprisingly minor role with piping clarity.

blog 2This production, then, stars several superb performances from the female actors, and a slick stage design, but is let down by both by the script itself, which seems to me doesn’t explore all the issues it raises properly, and by its stiff leading man. Worth going to see for the issues and for Leonard and Posonby’s performances, but not near the standard of the Almeida’s recent productions (Ghosts, Oresteia, Medea).

Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre: 2.5/5 stars

“A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

When I heard the Mischief Theatre team were doing a Christmas version of their hilarious hit The Play That Goes Wrong (in my top ten shows of bloglast year in fact), I urged my Mum to book it for the whole family as a Christmas treat – last year we went to see The Scotsboro Boys, a musical which, whilst incredibly thought-provoking, wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre, however, was exactly the opposite. Not particularly thought-provoking perhaps but packed full of laughs, as the poor Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatic Society attempted vainly to deal with an electrocuted Tinkerbell, an uncontrollable revolving stage, and some incredibly indiscrete voice recordings whilst putting on a Christmas production of J.M. Barrie’s much-loved Peter Pannot a pantomime as co-director Chris Bean (played by actual co-writer Henry Shields with aplomb – and such stressed tension I’m surprised the vein on his forehead didn’t burst).

Having seen The Play That Goes Wrong I was a little more prepared this time for the pre-show antics in the stalls, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable – plus I was thrilled to see a certain Fred Gray who I last saw at the Edinburgh Fringe as the starring role in Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens… this was rather more family friendly of course and involved many less drag queens and sudden strip teases as I’m sure parents will be pleased to hear.

blog 1The play, once it started, took a very similar format to the original version, as is to be expected, except that the directorial apologetic speech was given not only by Chris Bean but also by new co-director Robert Grove (played with enormous gusto by second co-writer Henry Lewis), with a new dimension of competition added to the mix of theatrical disaster and comedic mayhem. In fact, this play as a whole was much more focused on the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors as well as the slapstick of the original. Apologies, by the way, for referring so frequently to The Play That Goes Wrong, but it is very hard not to compare, given its obvious connection! I did, however, take my Dad with me who’d hadn’t seen the first play – and as a result perhaps enjoyed the Christmas version slightly more than my Mum, my brothers and I.

Now I’m not saying I didn’t have a great time at Peter Pan Goes Wrong – the production has some genius moments (I loved Dennis (aka Jonathan Sayer the third of the co-writers) who, due to not being able to remember his lines, wore headphones throughout, leading to some great moments as he repeated literally everything he was broadcast). And the cast in general are just so comical and likeable and enthusiastic that I would basically go see anything they were in.blog 3 All those who had to battle with “flying” across the stage were particularly impressive; I can’t imagine just doing it right is easy, but to deliberately do it badly and make that funny rather than pathetic or frustrating shows serious talent and practice. Greg Tannahill (Peter Pan – at least for most of it) and Chris Leask (Trevor the Techie, determinedly fixing the scenery no matter what else was going on, and forced to constantly step in and attempt to fix things) were particularly skilled at this whole complicated flying-and-banging-into-things malarkey.

I loved the girl power felt between an effervescent Nancy Wallinger as about a gazillion parts, including a feisty Tinkerbell, and the untiring Charlie Russell, heroically tying the whole play together as the flirty Sandra, playing Wendy to several different Peters. Dave Hearn as the shyly smiling Max, playing both Michael and the Crocodile, had the entire audience behind him by the end. Tom Edden was a new and welcome addition to the group as the Narrator, flinging piles of glitter into the air and jolting on and off the stage on his ‘magical’ chair.

blog 4

What I’m trying to get across here is that all the elements of a great show are here; slapstick chaos reigns on-stage and the characters are foolish, obnoxious and arrogant, but also so delightfully determined to complete their show at any cost that you just can’t help but will them along -a bit like Bottom and the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the same time, for me I felt the focus on the intra-cast relationships sometimes took away from the overall comedy. I always find it irritating in TV shows, like House M.D. or OUAT when the key concept, the originality I started watching the show for in the first episode, becomes lost with writers desperate to focus more on complicated human relationships rather than the plot or the cases or, in this case, the gags.

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' play, Press Night, London, Britain - 9 Dec 2015

I mean, maybe I’m just heartless and detached and more interested by curiosities than real personal contact but you know, oh well, I am what I am. And my overriding feelings are that the best moments of this very funny play were when it focused on very small elements (a man dressed as a dog stuck inside a door for example) rather than when it had to take on the big themes of love and jealousy.

Still, the cast are fantastic and the jokes are a-plenty, and it’s a lovely Christmas treat for the family – just remember; it’s not a pantomime.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

(And, by the way, Happy New Year! A round-up of 2015 will be coming soon!)

“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