At the beginning of this year I travelled to London, largely in order to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale. London might be assumed to be pretty grim in January. It hits a strong note of grey at the best of times, let alone in the post-Christmas, pre-daffodil dark of winter. And yet, how I love it. I love there being reasons to move directly from gallery to department store to pub in a scurrying bundle, feeling I’ve earned the treat of a hot chocolate or a brandy at every point along the way, just by virtue of having been outside. I love feeling connected to the experience of people going back hundreds of years, who were in great need of all kinds of storytelling to get them through the shut-in part of the year and keep them warm, and grateful for one another’s closeness. A sad tale’s best for winter, as they say.
The Winter’s Tale is a play that is incredibly meaningful to me. Its messages about moving on after experiencing dreadful harm, and of people looking out for one another say a great deal that we need to hear. I believe there is something noble in the genre of Romance that supersedes tragedy in the progress of Shakespeare’s writing career. Tragedy gives up, Romance points out that, after all the pain, hurt, betrayal, calamity, these people need to find a way to get up the next morning and go on living with one another. The love in this play is love that has to adapt to a changing, sometimes frightening world. The characters experience the vulnerability that comes with accepting that one cannot control the people one loves. In Paulina, it also gives us a character who is a role model for speaking truth to power.
Kenneth Branagh has been the world’s greatest recruiter for Shakespeare since Garrick. This means that his direction often seems less driven by finding what the play has to say, than by persuading his audience to love Shakespeare as much as he does. This made for a production that lingered more in the warm parts of the play than in the icy blasts of Leontes’ tyranny. From the first view of the stage it was apparent that this was The Winter’s Tale done as The Nutcracker. High Victorian with a giant Christmas tree. Polished floors and grand windows, and everybody in exquisitely tailored waistcoats and bustles tell us that this is a refined, perhaps uptight, but certainly enviable society. The dramaturgy of the play does demand a veneer of perfection in the early scenes, to show the significance of it all being destroyed.
As the king falling into violent madness, Branagh’s somewhat scenery-crewing style is accommodated better by this role than probably any other. Branagh didn’t need to shape the role to suit his abilities, they were already a perfect fit, but in a curious way Dench did. Judi Dench has acquired a public persona that is so attached to her role as a national treasure that it was as if there had been a decision to soften the edges of Paulina so as not to disturb the audience’s familiarity with it. At the end of Act III when Paulina berates Leontes over his responsibility for his wife’s death, Dench switched earlier and more completely from attacking to comforting him than I have ever seen in the role. Her “Alas, I have showed too much the rashness of a woman” was sincere, rather than bitingly ironic, and the whole speech continued in that vein. She seemed ready to accept the King’s contrition and rehabilitation before he had actually done any penance. Dench one doubled as Hermione and Perdita in 1970, so there is a fascinating kind of completion of a woman’s life journey seeing her play the senior figure who takes charge of the action, rather than being forced to merely react to being acted upon by powerful men. Paulina’s strength of character was still never in doubt here, but it was a very cautious choice for the role to step so far back from her sharper side.
Many of the remainder of the cast were primarily voice actors, and I believe there were several singers among them. This made for exemplary clarity over what can be some rather convoluted language and made the Bohemian Act 4, in particular, a delight to simply sink into and listen to. Everyone was charming and passionate, and funny when they needed to be. Jessie Buckley as Perdita, who was well cast to take on Imogen Stubbs’ mantle of ingenue-in-chief, and may in fact have been wearing one of her archived wigs, was convincingly worth risking a kingdom for. Polixines’ inexcusable fit of rage at being flouted by his son helped along his own story arc – by the time he came to forgive Leontes he had heard himself sound all too like the man who almost had him killed.
I was perplexed by the considerable trimming of the lines in the final scene. Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, and there is plenty that can go from various points along the journey, but the conclusion is exquisitely balanced and never, ever drags. It is also Paulina’s showcase moment, allowing her to be the stage manager of everything and everyone. Her power as the high mage of theatre magic deserves every chance to shine, and the intensity of the audience’s emotional experience at this moment needs space to breathe, so there is no cause to rush towards the end.
I still find many occasions when I see something I hadn’t thought of in a production of Shakespeare, or where an interpretation offers a way of taking a play or a moment within it that had never occurred to me. I did not find any such revelatory moments in this production. Its purpose was not to uncover new depths. Rather, it offered warmth and clarity, assured speaking from wonderful voices, and a gentle telling of what is at many points a brutal tale.