Posted By Sari
This outing to the theatre via the movie theatre was interesting for quite a number of reasons, but mainly because this was the first time I have been to see a production of Shakespeare where I had not studied or at least read the play before. All I knew was that it was one of the Shakespeare’s later works, its name indicates that the story is fantastical, there is some sort of statue scene and it is often viewed as problematic to classify because it does not fit with the folio’s division to comedies and tragedies. I did not even know that the famous stage direction “exit pursued by a bear” came from this one. (Wikipedia has more, if you need to know)
In fact, the bear episode is a good example why the play feels somehow off: bound by his oath, Antigonus leaves the new-born baby Perdita on the Bohemian coast (yes, I know….). He exits pursued by a bear and the Young Shepherd in the next scene describes quite graphically how the bear has torn him apart.
Antigonus is quite distressed that following his oath means leaving a baby to its probable death: “Weep I cannot, But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I To be oath enjoin’d to this”. He has been shown to be a kind man and is loved by his wife – the moral centre to the play – so his death should move us. But his demise is related to us by the comic relief character who basically swaps quips with his father about the situation, does not even try to help Antigonus, and kindly promises to go back to check if the bear left something for him to bury. Sorry, what?
The plot does not have twins or girls dressed as boys, but otherwise has quite a lot of familiar Shakespearean tropes from jealous husband and star-crossed lovers, to a young girl distributing flowers to all and sundry. The first half is a tragedy, the fourth act is broad comedy and the last an eucatastrophe where repentance is rewarded in two great denouements (first of which happens wholly off-stage!). Is it mature Shakespeare experimenting and re-inventing form and genre, or a tired playwright just putting something together for the new season? Are the Shakespeare scholars so enthusiastic about the last plays – The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest and Pericles – because they are underappreciated masterpieces or because it is much more difficult to say anything original about Hamlet? Go figure.
I do have to say though, that the off-screen reunion between Perdita, Leontes and Polixenes is in a twisted way pure genius. It is the money shot, the moment we have been waiting for: father and daughter reunited, the childhood friends falling to each other’s arms, forgiveness all around. And we, the audience get this by report by three unnamed gentlemen, one of which even tells us that “Then have you lost a sight, which was to be seen, that cannot be spoken of”. The WtF-factor is even greater if you don’t know how the play ends.
If The Winter’s Tale leaves the audience a bit uneasy and at sea – by design or not – what about this particular production? I have a really ambiguous relationship with Branagh as an actor and director. Some of his work I love, sometimes I think he pushes things just over the limit from drama to melodrama. I do love his diction which means that though I can’t watch his pompous movie-Hamlet without squirming, I find his BBC radio version (with Derek Jacoby and Judy Dench) pretty awesome.
I was a bit hesitant about this Winter’s Tale because Rob Ashford’s and Branagh’s much applauded Macbeth from Manchester few years back seemed to me an unrestrained muddle without any nuance, and really wasted Alex Kingston’s talent. Luckily, The Winter’s Tale turned out to be quite an interesting and sometimes even gripping production.
Even if it seems to be quite a popular period to set The Winter’s Tale in, I did appreciate the Edwardian setting of the play. It both brought the theme of gender nearer the viewer and also evoked the Frist World War by drawing parallels between Leontes and Polixenes on one hand and three of Victoria’s grandchildren leading the European monarchies to war on the other. The sets were beautiful and gloriously lit, music appropriate and well used, and the melancholy wintery feel of first half of the play reminiscent of Branagh’s superb Twelfth Night from 1988. And if the singing and dancing bucolic Bohemia of the IV act did seem out of place, we mostly have Shakespeare to thank for that.
Branagh’s Leontes is to certain extent slave to the plot. His jealousy to his wife and best friend comes out of nowhere and grows into an unreasoned wrath in an instant. There is not much time to be subtle. The way the production neatly implied that Leontes was jealous to both parties helps a little: he is afraid not only that his wife is unfaithful, but also and maybe crucially, that this his best friend is choosing the said wife over him. Also, if his actions are considered in the light of the discussion about good governance and tyranny (both on national and familial level), the lightness of his motivation possibly does not matter that much. Even so, as a character his unmotivated and stubborn jealousy makes him difficult to relate to.
Branagh does generally a good job with the text, but in this production he is overshadowed by her long-time theatrical partner Judy Dench as Paulina, a lady in waiting for the queen and the one character who dares to challenge Leontes. The tension between the two is tangible and crosses even the screen, especially in the third act where Paulina comes to tell of Hermione’s death and accuses Leontes of tyranny. The way Branagh’s knees cut out under him when he hears her makes for a magical moment of theatre. And then, of course, he has to push the scene just that one bit more with a pitiful moan and into the realms of melodrama.
The rest of the cast do a good job. Miranda Raison is a noble Hermione, who well sees her own powerlessness in man’s world, John Shrapnel is solid Camillo, and Michael Pennington sympathetic Antigones. Hadley Fraser as Polixenes is somewhat muted, but does come to his own in the silly fourth act when he reveals his presence to his wayward son whom he has been observing in disguise and proves to be quite an inflexible familial tyrant himself.
The young lovers of the two last acts were a mixed bag. I am sure it was a directorial decision to make Tom Bateman’s prince Florizel declaim his lines in overtly noble manner, but it does make his character somewhat annoying – a hot headed young Edwardian gentleman full of noble ideals and little idea how to go about fulfilling them. It was sometimes difficult to see what Jessie Buckley’s clever and earthy Perdita sees in him.
The character that most makes me think The Winter’s Tale is not quite a cohesive play, is the trickster character Autolycus in the last two acts. He seems superfluous, and his actions only create plot holes he himself has to explain away in a short monologue in the last act. Here his song-and-dance act is taken on here quite competently by John Dagleish, but I do find the character and his role in the play a bit of a puzzle.
All in all, as a play, I am not quite sold on The Winter’s Tale being a masterpiece. But as an interpretation Kenneth Branagh theatre company, himself included, managed to make the play relevant and interesting – never mind statues, bears and country girls named Mopsa.