What’s it all about?
Deck the halls! Kenneth Branagh and his humble company of players (Judi Dench! Zoë Wanamaker!) have officially begun their year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre. And in a flurry of snow, carols and chocolate box sumptuousness, Branagh alongside Queen of the Stage Dench opened the season on Saturday with one of Shakespeare’s most bizarrely eccentric plays, The Winter’s Tale.
In the hands of mere mortals this meandering, magical tale of a king who casts out his queen and childhood friend Polixenes after a mistaken case of the green-eyed monster, of statues who come to life and convenient coincidences that draw abandoned royal children back to their palace homes, might be just a tad confusing, but Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford make it a joy to watch in three hours of pure theatrical class.
Who’s in it?
Dench predictably steals the show with a twinkling, unshakeable and headstrong performance as the Queen’s loyal friend Paulina. For theatre geeks, seeing her and Branagh act alongside one another will not disappoint, with the pair of Olivier Award winners showing us all how Shakespeare is done with confidence, charisma and, in the case of Branagh’s flailing Leontes, craziness. Miranda Raison is elegantly resolute as Hermione, while Hadley Fraser gives a deft performance as the other half of Branagh’s bromance-turned-sour Polixenes.
While a cast of this calibre makes name-checking unavoidable, the purpose of the season is to embody the spirit of a rep company (with the majority of the company also appearing in the accompanying piece Harlequinade) and Branagh has collected a fine troupe for this purpose who come into their own when The Winter’s Tale heads out of the palace and into the far sexier land of Bohemia. There Tom Bateman is a perfect zealous romantic as Florizel with Jessie Buckley spellbinding as Leontes’ long lost daughter Perdita.
What should I look out for?
If your name is Antigonus, bears, obviously. Aside from that, a folk-singing John Dagleish as the Fagin-like fool of the piece and the bit where it all goes a bit Frozen. Did we mention it snows?
In a nutshell?
Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and a stunning ensemble bring magic, passion and pure theatrical class to The Winter’s Tale.
Who was in the press night crowd?
Ian McKellen was mobbed on arrival, while future The Painkiller star Rob Brydon was also thrilling autograph hunters who flocked to the Garrick Theatre.
What’s being said on Twitter?
— Tanja (@adorerdj) November 4, 2015
Today I went to opening performance of The Winter’s Tale at @BranaghTheatre. Judi Dench + Kenneth Branagh broke my heart… wonderful
— Katharine Viner (@KathViner) November 7, 2015
Will I like it?
Undoubtably so. The production may be as classic as it gets, but it’s also alive with vitality and magic.
The Winter’s Tale is playing until 16 January. Tickets are limited. Call the box office on 0330 333 4811 for best availability or book to see it at the cinema as part of the first Branagh Theatre Live screening on 26 November.