The Winter’s Tale ~ Live Screening at Empire Cinema, Leicester Square ~ 26.11.2015

With such an accomplished cast as Kenneth Branagh has managed to secure for the first part of his year long season at the Garrick, it’s not difficult to see how tickets for the entire run sold out so far in advance.

That’s where the joy of the live cinema screenings come in, and how grateful I have been for their existence. I know many are not in favour and I completely understand concerns of not wanting to take people away from attending the live events – but I feel that schemes like NT Live and KBTC Live have been managed correctly and are respectful enough to the shows they are broadcasting to not announce these broadcasts until tickets have been on sale for quite some time. I think it’s a great way to provide geographically and financially convenient access to people to great theatre – but perhaps that debate is for a different day.

Despite the fantastic opportunity that live screenings afford, it’s tough to feel as connected to the show as you would being sat in the same room. However, with as stellar a cast – including Dame Judi Dench, Hadley Fraser, Miranda Raison and Tom Bateman – as Kenneth Branagh has assembled, and some beautiful staging, who could not fail to fall in love with this production, even through the camera lens?

I saw most of this cast in the same venue a few weeks ago, where they are performing Harlequinade in rep with The Winter’s Tale. This was as beautiful and moving as that show was funny. I wasn’t overly familiar with The Winter’s Tale prior to watching the production, with the exception of the infamous “Exit, pursued by bear” line perhaps, but is a rather bittersweet tragedy indeed – King Leontes’ descent into a jealous madness contrasts beautifully with the lightness of the budding romance between Florizel and Perdita, the inspirational and stoic bravery of Hermione in the face of false accusations against the deep sadness her death brings upon the court.

Branagh’s Leontes is equally matched by Hadley’s Fraser’s Polixenes, whose own journey within the play threatens to mirror that of his once-friend-now-enemy Leontes, when his rage surfaces at his son’s romantic pursuits of a girl of ignoble birth, Perdita. Instead of ordering the death of his son, as Leontes did of his beloved wife, Polixenes forces the couple to flee for safety – and in true Shakespearean style, it all neatly tidies up with the couple arriving at Leontes’ court, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. You’ve gotta love Bill, right? Anything for a neat and tidy ending. Speaking of which, this denouement wasn’t one of my favourites. It’s a play which has so much to offer and is so enjoyable, but could be vastly improved by the removal of the final 10 minutes or so. If you’ve never seen this play before, I shan’t spoil it for you, but in terms of utilising plot devices to surprise an audience, he does it much better in other works. Having said that, Miranda Raison was simply sublime as long-suffering Hermione and entirely faultless with regards to my dislike of the final scenes.

Of course a real star of the show was the inimitable Dame Judi Dench. The wisdom and calm her portrayal of Paulina brought to the cursed King shone throughout, and it is Paulina who becomes the heart of the piece during this troubled time. The Branagh-Dench partnership being a major draw to this production for many certainly paid off, with two phenomenally strong performances. And ably assisted by a very talented cast, who were so aptly suited to their roles – a very special mention for John Dagleish’s Autolycus, who was a wonderful mix of charm, wit and cunning, the perfect combination for a conman, I would have thought.

It’s a timeless piece, and the production understands this – indeed I tried to gauge at what era this particular production may have been set. The Christmas scenes at the start felt very much early 20th Century, with the Christmas tree set up and grainy video footage projected onto a sheet. But in the lazy summer in Bohemia, time is harder to place and could be anywhere from mid 1800s to perhaps 1930s. But none of it felt out of sync with the Shakespearean language and the ideas he put forward.

It is a play which doesn’t know what it wants to be – and perhaps it becomes a more honest and holistic snapshot of humanity because of it – but it makes it hard to categorise. The idealist start followed by sharp descent into a fit of jealousy very reminiscent of Othello, the romantic nature of Florizel and Perdita – children of warring families (although not aware of this) could be likened to Romeo and Juliet, the mystical elements also present in a number of Shakespearean plays. Shakespeare’s search for the happy ending sadly somewhat discredits the drama and intrigue the first half of the play gives us – but certainly this is a criticism of the original text and not the performances.

As I mentioned earlier, the run is sold out, but no doubt there will be encore screenings of the live broadcast over the coming months, so keep an eye out for news on the KBTC Live website.


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